Despite selling fewer copies than its predecessor You'd Prefer an Astronaut, the album was critically acclaimed. Brent DiCrescenzo from Pitchfork Media praised the abrasive but graceful nature of the album, writing, "A listen to Downward Is Heavenward actually scrubs off a layer of skin, yet Hum still manage to infuse grace and control into their skyward swirl." Ned Ragget from Allmusic wrote, "Having scored their fluke hit with 'Stars', Hum hunkered down and created a follow-up album that went nowhere, leading to the band's splintering. An unfortunate result all around, because, arguably, Downward Is Heavenward isn't merely the group's best album, but a lost classic of '90s rock, period." In 1999, Pitchfork Media placed the album at #81 on their top 100 albums of the 1990s.