And All That Could Have Been / Still (Nothing/Interscope)

Nine Inch Nails 

And All That Could Have Been / Still (Nothing/Interscope)

Trent Reznor's angst-ridden anthems for the sullen and downtrodden arrive only once every four or five years. That's not just because it's difficult to discover twelve or fifteen new and distinct ways to depict violent alienation but also because of his underrated attention to subtlety. With his vocal variations, he's created new gradients between distress and despair, between fear and loathing, between seething contempt and boiling-over bile. And with his music, what sounds like barely contained cacophony is actually the result of meticulous composition. Many noise artists establish delicate melodies, then crush them with a sonic boulder; Reznor covers his fragile inventions with thousands of brightly painted pebbles, then removes the stones one by one, revealing his original creation, shaken but unharmed.

Given all the variables that go into each Nine Inch Nails song, it's no surprise that Reznor and his touring band have difficulty mirroring his intricate studio works. What's interesting is Reznor's overcompensational approach -- perhaps concerned that an arena's acoustics won't properly amplify his askew emotions, this dark poet turns to gratuitous expletives. Nearly every other track on And All That Could Have Been, the album that documents 2000's fragility v2.0 tour, contains a tacked-on f-bomb or two. Hey pig becomes a rhythmically forced Hey motherfucking pig; I'm gonna watch it come down gets an unnecessary Come right fucking down echo. To support Reznor's superfluous obscenities, his band stretches songs well past their breaking points. On record, the torrid "March of the Pigs" comes to a peaceful rest in less than three minutes, lulled to sleep by a piano hook. Onstage, Reznor executes the low-key ending nicely, then needlessly resurrects the bloated swine for another round of ham-handed riffs.

Reznor's perfectionist streak saves this concert record from becoming a throwaway. It's impeccably sequenced, from the easy segue between "March of the Pigs" and "Piggy" to the challenging connection between his ethereal instrumentals and the hard-edged industrial beats that immediately follow. And it's occasionally powerful, not coincidentally on songs with rigid stop-and-start patterns -- Reznor shies away from singing and playing guitar simultaneously. Most notable, though, are the disc's softest moments: the disconsolate apocalyptic narration of "The Day the World Went Away"; the deathbed desperation of "Hurt," which is as close as any current band comes to a perfect concert closer; and the similarly expressed slow-developing sorrow of "The Great Below," which could be called "Hurt" v2.0.

Such stripped-down gems are the focus of Still, a dazzling showcase of Reznor's unfettered songwriting. Some critics have dismissed this bonus disc, scoffing that true deconstruction entails more than playing electronically oriented songs on organic instruments and eliminating distortion. That's a valid point, in some cases. But Reznor's finished products are so dizzyingly complex, and his underlying melodies so beautifully simple, that removing the calculated chaos from the mix makes for revelatory listening. Reznor might sound like an OZZfest-brand agitator on his live record, substituting profanity for insight and volume for melody, but on Still he proves that he's just the opposite -- a sensitive songwriter who puffs up like a blowfish when confronted with intimidating crowds. A stripped-down solo set focusing on Still's epiphinic tracks would provide an exhilarating experience, though it's doubtful such a tour will ever come to pass. Perhaps Still better deserves the title And All That Could Have Been.

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