The Primordial Inflation Explorer is an Explorer-class mission to open new windows on the early universe through measurements of the polarization and absolute frequency spectrum of the cosmic microwave background. PIXIE will measure the gravitational-wave signature of primordial inflation through its distinctive imprint in linear polarization, and characterize the thermal history of the universe through precision measurements of distortions in the blackbody spectrum. PIXIE uses an innovative optical design to achieve background-limited sensitivity in 400 spectral channels spanning over 7 octaves in frequency from 30 GHz to 6 THz (1 cm to 50 micron wavelength). Multi-moded non-imaging optics feed a polarizing Fourier Transform Spectrometer to produce a set of interference fringes, proportional to the difference spectrum between orthogonal linear polarizations from the two input beams. Multiple levels of symmetry and signal modulation combine to reduce systematic errors to negligible levels. PIXIE will map the full sky in Stokes I, Q, and U parameters with angular resolution 2.6° and sensitivity 70 nK per 1° square pixel. The principal science goal is the detection and characterization of linear polarization from an inflationary epoch in the early universe, with tensor-to-scalar ratio r < 10−3 at 5 standard deviations. The PIXIE mission complements anticipated ground-based polarization measurements such as CMB- S4, providing a cosmic-variance-limited determination of the large-scale E-mode signal to measure the optical depth, constrain models of reionization, and provide a firm detection of the neutrino mass (the last unknown parameter in the Standard Model of particle physics). In addition, PIXIE will measure the absolute frequency spectrum to characterize deviations from a blackbody with sensitivity 3 orders of magnitude beyond the seminal COBE/FIRAS limits. The sky cannot be black at this level; the expected results will constrain physical processes ranging from inflation to the nature of the first stars and the physical conditions within the interstellar medium of the Galaxy. We describe the PIXIE instrument and mission architecture required to measure the CMB to the limits imposed by astrophysical foregrounds.