When Trent Reznor released the live concert film And All That Could Have Been in 2002, some versions were packaged with an individual Halo (his personal moniker for an album) called Still. You can’t find it in stores. It’s too rare. If you were to find it in a used record store, it’s rarity would nail it at a ridiculous price. To be sure, this is the exact wrong Nine Inch Nails album to be the rarest, not only because it is a wonderful commodity to fans but also because of the unique and important place it holds in Reznor’s discography. The catch of this record is that it is Nine Inch Nails in it’s most stripped down form, most of the time featuring nothing more than Reznor’s voice, a piano, soft synthesizers, a few non-intrusive beats, and on one occasion an acoustic guitar. To put it simply, this is as close to a Nine Inch Nails Unplugged as anyone will ever get.
Having gotten this on a whim simply because it sounded interesting, it was at first off putting, mostly because I was so used to hearing Reznor’s screaming and blistering synthesizers. Whatever scary things I thought I had heard from Nine Inch Nails before, nothing could have possibly prepared me for Still. This nine track simplistic reinvention of Reznor’s music is much more destructive than The Downward Spiral and a vital part of his career that needed to be released. In comparison, And All That Could Have Been simply pales and seems unnecessary. It is more emotionally powerful than the equally brilliant The Downward Spiral, and it rivals The Fragile in scope. To truly understand the record, one must rewind three years back to the release of The Fragile, the most progressive album in Trent’s career where his sound was completely reinvented and a whole new landscape of music was wrought out of raw emotion and studio know-how. Stylistically, Still sounds very much like The Fragile mostly because a lot of the songs are from those sessions. And in fact, a lot of what that one was about was, go figure, musical fragility and the part it plays in music that is aurally huge. These songs are mostly just piano and are the very spirit of fragility. What is certain is that this acoustic album is the core, the keystone, the ultimate facet of Trent Reznor’s career. Whether or not it is the greatest is up for grabs. The Downward Spiral and The Fragile are both killer albums worthy of much praise, but they both have their individual issues that push listeners away. Still, on the other hand, is in many ways a quintessential recording, and probably the most accessible and easy to understand record he has ever made. And yet with as much honest and forthrightness as it contains, it is still emotionally biting and as destructive as any other release.
The song selection is quite interesting and highly effective. The first song, “Something I Can Never Have”, features only piano and vocals and, while not a complete reinvention, is quite moving. The problem here is the lyrics, which cannot be changed from their cheesy originals, but are still nonetheless given fine vocal treatment from a generally fantastic vocalist despite his mediocrity in lyrics. Reznor is actually crying by the last verse, and it becomes rapidly more clear what he’s talking about in the song: while the Pretty Hate Machine version was a angst anthem about a failed teenage romance, the Still version is about him reminiscing about his prior life and lamenting his fall into drug addiction. The “something I can never have” in that version is a normal life, free of personal problems, like he used to have. It is a good song that was meant for this album. This is not the only vocal highlight, though. The song “The Fragile” is given a wonderful, somewhat chilled rendition as well. And “The Day the World Went Away” is given similar treatment. What made the original so striking was it’s layered sound, and yet the melody stands just as strong at it’s barest. And possibly the most striking, “And All That Could Have Been” is an unbelievable display of versatility moving in waves of subtle melody through more intense sections and one of Reznor’s most pained vocal performances. These songs are the true winners.
Four of the songs on the album are instrumentals of unmeasurable power and emotion, and are easily the greatest assets of the album. Instrumentals have always been an interesting strength of Nine Inch Nails, some of the best being “La Mer”, “A Warm Place”, and “Just Like You Imagined” (which many may know as one of the various themes of the movie 300). However, all the instrumentals here almost make everything else seem like a waste of time. The albums second song, “Adrift and at Peace”, perfectly represents it’s title and features the signature Fragile piano sound. Then midway through the album, the interestingly named “Gone, Still” is more haunting than anything that preceded it. But the true, haunting resolve comes in the last two instrumentals which make up the last ten minutes of the album. They are completely triumphant in marking Still as Nine Inch Nails’ most telling, moving album.
If you ever had any doubts about the integrity or talent of Trent Reznor, this is the place you should go. This is the core of his career, created at the height of his drug addiction, at a time which his emotion was brought to the forefront in his music. Regardless of whether or not you like the rest of his music, chances are Still will move you in some way. If you are a Nine Inch Nails fan who doesn’t have this, make it an immediate goal to somehow acquire it. And if you are looking for a place to start and you know someone who has this, go for it. I can’t stress enough how moving this record is. It might be his most valuable, rewarding disk. Triumph feels great.