Pretty Regret Machine
NIN's Live Album, And All That Could Have Been

Got my car back.

There is no sweeter feeling than unhindered mobility, especially after you’ve been traveling solely on the kindness of strangers for a while. Trust me. The car looks brand new, and so naturally I’m petrified to drive the thing, lest I smash it up again. It’s almost too shiny and perfect for me to be comfortable behind the wheel. I know, the depths of my neuroses know no bounds…

As for the computer, well, that’s another story. Suffice it to say that you’ll probably have to endure one more of these ultra-late Sunday columns before I get back on track. I figure there are two big new releases next week (Dream Theater’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and the Chemical Brothers’ Come With Us), so I should be able to do one on Sunday and one on Wednesday on my fully healed word cruncher. I believe that saying things out loud helps them to come true, so I include this tentative schedule in this week’s missive in the hopes that the universe gets the hint.

Thanks for your patience. With any luck, you’ll be getting Tuesday Morning on Wednesday evening again before long. (Only in my world does that make a reassuring amount of sense.)

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Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor is so far ahead of the curve he’s caught up with his own backlash. It’s so fashionable to hate him that the bleeding-edge alternative critics have gone back to praising him again as if megahit “Closer” had never happened. The people who approach Reznor from a musical standpoint, meaning those who aren’t looking for someone in black fishnets to define their vague alienation for them, have never stopped praising his work, however. Reznor remains one of our most talented sonic architects, and thanks to a few MTV hits, he’s also our only fully-funded one.

Here are the facts. In 1989, Reznor, with a little album called Pretty Hate Machine, popularized a certain computer-driven sound that had become known as industrial. That record has always sounded cheap and clangy, but it influenced the creation of mainstream industrial acts the same way the first Velvet Underground album influenced garage rock. Almost every idiot with a sequencer who heard this record started a band, or rather, a “band,” clogging the airwaves with barely musical depresso-montages. Reznor himself has never done another album like it.

In 1992, the reclusive Reznor returned with Broken, a six-song EP that introduced layered, noisy guitars to the equation. Broken is a merciless 25-minute burst of rage that, again, influenced hundreds of less talented hacks like Gravity Kills to start screaming and overloading their tracks with noisy mayhem. Broken retains an artfulness that still sets it far above the oceans of imitators, even though, again, Reznor has never done another album like it.

Instead, he embarked on a quirky and satisfying artistic journey with 1994’s The Downward Spiral, a diseased look inside the mind of a violent criminal. Rarely has such a difficult and uncompromising work yielded such a popular hit single, but “Closer” really put Reznor on the map, which naturally fueled cries of sell-out. How anyone can listen to The Downward Spiral and hear sell-out is beyond me. It’s a deeply emotional and complex album, filled with off-kilter sonic constructions that constantly threaten to collapse upon themselves. From a purely musical standpoint, it’s a modern masterpiece.

1999’s double-disc follow-up, The Fragile, was even better – a sprawling, thematically linked stunner that sounded like the culmination of all of Reznor’s disparate musical threads. In this age of downloadable hit singles, it’s impressive enough that such a high-profile artist decided to release a 100-minute work that cannot be successfully separated or broken down. The Fragile is an all-or-not-at-all proposition, and it rewards complete listens like few albums from the ’90s do.

All of which is a lengthy way of stating that Reznor deserves every ounce of respect he’s given. His journey has been an utterly fascinating one so far, and he’s one of a handful of modern artists who reveals more of himself with each subsequent release. Just when you think he’s through surprising you, he jolts you again with something utterly unexpected.

Which brings us to his new two-disc set, And All That Could Have Been. It’s a strange, yet oddly fitting title for an overview of older material that brings new emotions into focus. As advertised, And All That Could Have Been contains a live album, Reznor’s first, and it provides a terrific sampling of material from all four albums. The live band hasn’t changed in 10 years – it’s still Reznor, Charlie Clouser, Robin Finck, Jerome Dillon and Danny Lohner. What has changed from that disastrous first Lollapalooza tour is the volume of emotion NIN brings to the material.

The live album documents last year’s Fragility 2.0 tour, voted by many music publications as the best tour of the year. Yes, the band plays with programmed backing beats, but you’d be surprised just how difficult that is to pull off, especially since the arrangements often deconstruct the songs in surprising new ways. The blips and beats are treated as the songs’ essential skeletons, over which Reznor and company build new beasts. Most effective is the extended ending to “The Day the World Went Away,” a slowly cascading powerhouse of simplicity.

Reznor has always excelled at giving cold mechanical backdrops a flesh and blood treatment, and on stage he’s just as good as in the studio. The live disc brings the rage, as Reznor screams his way through “Terrible Lie,” “Wish,” “Gave Up,” “Head Like a Hole,” rare b-side “Suck” and “Starfuckers Inc.” like an unhinged demon. Surprisingly, though, he also carries off quieter, more orchestrated material like “The Great Below” with grace. Closing track “Hurt” (also the closer on Spiral) is just as effective live as on disc. Far from the studied precision of his studio works, And All That Could Have Been gives us a raw, fully human Reznor we’ve never heard before.

If you’re going to buy this thing, though, you need to get the two-disc version, because the second album here is the biggest and most pleasant surprise. It’s called Still, and it’s 43 minutes of stripped-down, piano-centric reflection. Reznor steps out from behind the curtain here and invites us to gaze at him, cracked and broken, with nowhere to hide. It’s the most affecting work he’s ever released, and the most effective deconstruction of his signature sound.

Still opens with a piano-and-vocal take on “Something I Can Never Have” that sets the tone – sparse instrumentation and naked vocals that crack and falter with emotion. Similar takes on “The Fragile” and “The Day the World Went Away” work just as well, and even when he adds pitter-pattering drums and synths to “The Becoming,” the tone remains somber. Still contains five new songs, four of which are gorgeous instrumentals that explore the territory Reznor mined with The Fragile‘s mood pieces. It’s capped off with new song “And All That Could Have Been,” a worthy addition.

Thematically, Still revisits every phase of the NIN trip so far with the kind of reflective hindsight that comes with age and distance. If Reznor has indeed been writing a strange form of autobiography, then Still is him looking back with regret. It’s tinged with a sadness that’s only hinted at in previous works, and it sustains that mood throughout. Closing track “Leaving Hope” may be the most emotional piece of instrumental music you’re likely to hear. That and the rest of Still serve as a perfect capstone to what hopefully is only the first chapter. The live album is just the bow on top. Still is the prize, another grand surprise in a grand and surprising career.

Next week, Dream Theater.

See you in line Tuesday morning.