The title of the new Nine Inch Nails disc, And All That Could Have Been, is perhaps a case of Trent Reznor taking a slight jab at himself. A noted perfectionist, Reznor’s recorded output is meticulously crafted — and well worth the wait — but it takes him forever to release anything. After the massive success of 1994’s The Downward Spiral (which came five scant years after Pretty Hate Machine), The Fragile took nearly five years to complete, by which time public interest had largely turned away from Nine Inch Nails and its unique brand of scabrous self-flagellation. That The Fragile was also Reznor’s most complex and subtle work to date didn’t bode well for the album’s commercial success either.
In recent interviews, Reznor has voiced unease with the state of Nine Inch Nails, that perhaps he’s taken the sound as far as it can go and that it may be time for a change. Perhaps to satisfy his rabid following until he charts that new direction, he offers up And All That Could Have Been, a live document of the recent Fragility v2.0 tour. Voted by Rolling Stone as 2000’s best tour, the 43-show assault was reportedly a watershed in Reznor’s live career.
Within the recesses of this album, then, is the title’s other possible meaning. And All That Could Have Been is a disappointment, providing nothing to further the Nine Inch Nails legacy, or even to frame it in such a way as to say, “Ah, here’s a portrait of what Reznor’s done up to this point”. Drawing from all aspects of Reznor’s canon, the album acts as a greatest hits of sorts. If that’s the case, though, why not offer a compilation of the studio versions he slaved over to begin with? With few exceptions, every cut on And All That Could Have Been bears the same arrangement and sound that we’re all familiar with. Apart from the crowd noise and slightly muddier sound, there’s little to evoke an “I wish I’d been there!” response.
The disc starts off aggressively enough, launching into “Terrible Lie” without even a nanosecond of crowd noise or “You wanted the best, you got the best!” self-promotion. “Sin” rides a pulsing bass intro and features a nicely chaotic drum interlude. “March of the Pigs” loses a step, and falls short of the studio version’s frenetic meltdown. “Piggy” gets an occasional spike of crowd response through the occasional profanity, ending in a crosscurrent of screams and profanities where dissonant piano notes clash before solidifying into a recognizable melody. From there, it’s a very nice segue into “The Frail”. And yeah, it’s kinda curious to hear a stadium full of people singing along to the bestial chorus from “Closer”. Throughout And All That Could Have Been, Reznor offers rawer sound and slightly more muscular tones. It’s all a matter of subtle shading, though. If you’re looking for surprises, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
In a way, that’s not surprising. Given the time and energy that Reznor’s put into perfecting his work, it’s unlikely he later had an epiphany along the lines of, “I’ll do ‘March of the Pigs’ with accordion and congas!” Throughout And All That Could Have Been, Reznor shows fairly strict allegiance to the songs. Apart from a moody intro here, an extended coda there, or slightly tweaked guitar lines, none of these songs have changed. Even with that concession in mind, it’s a letdown that a few older chestnuts from Pretty Hate Machine weren’t reworked even a little. Reznor’s a different person now. Technology’s changed. Do his songs really live in such a vacuum that none of these things affect them?
What’s more, And All That Could Have Been suffers in comparison to nearly every successful live album in recent memory, not the least of which is Radiohead’s I Might Be Wrong. Although woefully short, that disc showcases Radiohead injecting new life into their groundbreaking work from Kid A and Amnesiac, and the sonics are amazing. It succeeds as both a snapshot of a place and time, but also as an exciting new way of hearing material that was pretty vigorous to begin with.
Admittedly, part of the Nine Inch Nails live experience is visual. Without being there to see Reznor slamming himself around stage, breaking instruments, or laying in a corner limp as a rag doll, you lose a little bit of Reznor’s powerful style of sensory overload. That said, And All That Could Have Been does a poor job of tiding over fans who are waiting years for new material. Much more satisfying is the companion CD Still. Initially offered in a limited edition pairing with And All That Could Have Been, Still is now available from the band’s website, www.nin.com. Offering a stripped-down view of the band’s sound, Still displays NIN favorites and new instrumentals in a stark and appropriately disturbing light.
A lot of work obviously went into And All That Could Have Been. Reznor is upfront about the fact that not only is the disc a composite of different performances, but that each song is spliced together from 10 to 20 performances. The effort feels wasted, though, as the album provides neither definitive versions of songs nor glimpses into the random humanity that might have made a given night special. For those who were there, And All That Could Have Been might serve as a decent souvenir. Otherwise, you won’t be deprived of anything essential if you don’t pick it up.