While for most musicians live albums are little more than concert souvenirs or holiday-season cash-ins, that’s not true of Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor has always seen his music as an endless work in progress. Releasing songs, EPs and albums in various versions, he has managed to turn his obsessive refusal to stop tinkering into a compelling aesthetic. What drives him is his inability after the “completion” of any project to see it in any terms other than how far it fell short of his expectations. So, And All That Could Have Been, NIN’s first live album, announces itself in its very title as a disappointment.
Of course, it’s not. Its sixteen songs offer a gripping document of NIN’s mind-blowing 2000 tour in support of The Fragile — a tour that this magazine rightly declared the best of that year. (A DVD version of the complete show is also available.) Perhaps because he’s such a studio rat, Reznor sounds liberated onstage, where the immediacy of the moment burns away doubts and second-guessing. The claustrophobic focus of his studio recordings yields in performance to the overwhelming force of his band — Robin Finck and Reznor himself on guitars and keyboards, Danny Lohner on bass and keyboards, Charlie Clouser on keyboards and theremin, and Jerome Dillon on drums. Six of this album’s tracks are drawn from The Fragile, but And All That Could Have Been is really a graceful Nine Inch Nails career overview that hits powerful high points such as “Closer,” “Terrible Lie” and “Head Like a Hole.”
Needless to say, Reznor could hardly let it go at that. A limited-edition version of And All That Could Have Been, titled Still, includes an additional disc of songs (“The Fragile,” “The Day the World Went Away”) recorded “live in a deconstructed fashion,” including four new pieces. That disc is well worth seeking out. All the songs are quiet, lyrical and deeply unsettling — persuasive proof, if any is even needed at this point, of the musicality that underlies Reznor’s most ear-shattering work, and of his ability to disturb even at his moments of greatest beauty.