In rock history, there are a handful of instances in which multiple classic albums were released on the same day. Of those instances, March 8, 1994 is arguably one of the greatest dates with the release of Soundgarden’s Superunknown and Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. At the very least, it’s certainly one of the darkest.
The biggest commercial success of their respective catalogs, Superunknown, and The Downward Spiral in retrospect have become accidental companion pieces seeing depression and destruction come together as two sides of a very heavy coin. It’s a coin that’s time had come: when Soundgarden debuted on SubPop Records in 1987, and Nine Inch Nails on TVT two years later, neither band could imagine getting mainstream radio and MTV support or topping the charts. But upon release, Superunknown, and The Downward Spiral debuted at number one and two on the Billboard 200 album chart respectively.
To experience how these albums complement one another, you could listen to them one after another. But for a somewhat different experience, try alternating tracks from each album, in the order they appeared on their respective albums. Start with Superunknown’s track one (“Let Me Drown”) into The Downward Spiral’s track one (“Mr. Self Destruct”) and so on and so forth.
Sonically, these two albums are very different: Superunknown dives head first into hard rock psychedelia and The Downward Spiral going full bore into industrial metal. Thematically, however, there’s a very unique push and pull starting with the aforementioned track ones.
Chris Cornell sings, “So heal my wounds without a trace/And seal my tomb without my face/I’m going to the lonely place,” on “Let Me Drown.”
Meanwhile, Reznor screams “I take you where you want to go/I give you all you need to know/I drag you down I use you up/Mr. Self Destruct.” – “Mr. Self Destruct”
Not every transition on this mix is seamless, but some of the best include “Fell On Black Days” (“Whatsoever I’ve feared has come to life/Whatsoever I’ve fought off became my life/Just when every day seemed to greet me with a smile/Sunspots have faded and now I’m doing time”) into “Heresy” (“He sewed his eyes shut because he is afraid to see/He tries to tell me what I put inside of me/He got the answers to ease my curiosity/He dreamed up a god and called it Christianity”).
“Black Hole Sun” (“In my shoes, a walking sleep/And my youth I pray to keep/Heaven sent hell away/No one sings like you anymore“) goes into “The Becoming” (“The me that you know he had some second thoughts/He’s covered with scabs and he is broken and sore/The me that you know doesn’t come around much/That part of me isn’t here anymore”);
“I Do Not Want This” (“I’m always falling down the same hill/Bamboo puncturing this skin/And nothing comes bleeding out of me just like a waterfall I’m/Drowning in”) crashes into “Limo Wreck” (“And the wreck of you/Is the death of you all/And the wreck of you is the break and the fall”);
“Hurt” (“I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel/I focus on the pain/The only thing that’s real”) concludes The Downward Spiral while Superunknown concludes with “Like Suicide” (“With eyes of blood/And bitter blue/How I feel for you/I feel for you.”)
Those latter tracks serve up their writers’ pain in the most haunting way.
However you choose to take in these masterworks, perhaps the biggest takeaway is that in the 25 years since their release, Superunknown and The Downward Spiral remain ageless but also a reminder of a time when even alternative rock had a place under the “mainstream” label. Hopefully, those days aren’t gone for good, but it’s hard not to desperately long for them.