Even understanding the times--1994 was clearly an era where great "alternative" albums were selling in vast quantities--the huge success of The Downward Spiral is still a bit strange. Yes, it's a great album, maybe one of the ten best albums of the decade, and certainly hugely influential. But that statement applies to dozens of albums that didn't sell for shit. The Velvet Underground didn't turn into mega-stars in '67 when they released one of the best albums of an era that had a huge appetite for new and edgy rock bands.
The Downward Spiral was marketed really well. The album's cover art straddled a fine line between looking important and dangerous, which appealed to people across several demos, the key single, "Closer," had a chorus with the lyrics "I want to fuck you like an animal," which was basically mana from the gods to all teenage boys, and the video was one of the most artistic/innovative/memorable/disturbing/cool music videos anyone had ever seen. Trent Reznor was also good looking, ripped, badass, incredibly talented, and swore a lot, so he had a lot going for him.
But still. I've been listening to this album a lot over the last few days, and two things really strike me: 1) Goddamn, it's still really good, and 2) Goddamn, It is amazing that so many people bought and loved this album, which is tremendously inaccessible for the 95% of it that does not feature the word "fuck." It might be the most widely heard piece of completely non-commercial music ever, which is difficult to process.
In 1994, the album closer, "Hurt," really stood out for several reasons. It was sonically unlike the rest of the album, a very somber affair with almost no loud noises. It was somehow even bleaker than the rest of the album, which made it sound like the most dangerous song even though it was also the quietest--a reality that ought to have been mutually exclusive but somehow wasn't in this case. And the lyrics all felt poignant, even to millions of teenagers that had never tried heroin.
Today, "Hurt" is still memorable for these reasons, and others. More than anything else on the first three NIN albums, this song pointed towards the sustained relevance Reznor would continue to have. The musical direction of the song foretold the softer sounds he'd explore on subsequent releases, the Johnny Cash cover introduced Reznor to new audiences and brought him back to the attention of old ones, and the more subtle atmospheric work of the track was the first real evidence of the type of work Reznor would eventually do in film composing, such as the Oscar-winning (and marvelous) score for The Social Network.
It's also a song with a power that transcends its subject matter. While the song is about willful and powerless drug addiction, Cash's version--as well as time--have made it feel more universally about any type of pain we willingly subject ourselves to because we just can't help it.
Of any song from 1994, this one might eventually prove to have the longest lifespan.
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