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Classic Album Review: Nine Inch Nails | And All That Could Have Been

Trent Reznor and co. continue on their downward spiral with this pointless live disc.

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This came out in 2002 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):

 


Rock musicians are a lot like Hollywood starlets — some have actual talent but most have none; some age gracefully but most don’t; and while a precious few are able to carve out a lifelong career, the vast majority never live up to their potential, shining white hot for a brief moment before fading into pampered obscurity.

By that measurement, Trent Reznor is the Marisa Tomei of alt-rock. Back in the mid-’90s, you couldn’t get away from either of them. Now, it’s hard to remember what all the fuss was about. In Trent’s case, he isn’t making it any easier with albums like And All That Could Have Been, the new live disc from his long-running, downward-spiralling goth-industrial project Nine Inch Nails. Recorded during the tour for his critically acclaimed but commercially disappointing 1999 album The Fragile, this expertly recorded 74-minute document finds Trent and a four-piece band delivering a professionally flawless, reasonably energetic rendition of 16 NiN tunes old and new. Naturally, the set is dominated by Fragile-era fare like The Frail, The Wretched, The Day the World Went Away and Starf—ers, Inc., but Downward Spiral and Pretty Hate Machine faves like March Of The Pigs, Closer and Head Like A Hole are also welcome additions.

So much for the good news. Here’s the bad: There’s really no reason I can think of to buy this disc. For one thing, most of these recordings have got to be at least two years old. For another, most are virtually identical to the studio versions except for the crowd noise (although the Pretty Hate Machine stuff gets rocked up a bit with the addition of guitars). And most importantly, despite the speed, intensity and emotion of the music, And All That Could Have Been is one of the most sterile live albums you’ll hear. Reznor makes little attempt to connect with the audience, and the band’s precision and professionalism actually work against him, draining the energy from his songs until they become faceless, generic slabs of industrial byproduct. Where is the maniacal, screaming, keyboard-smashing Reznor of old? Maybe he can be found on the DVD and VHS versions of this set. But he’s certainly not here.

And certainly not on the second CD found in the fancy, boxed Deluxe Edition of And All That Could Have Been. This nine-song supplement consists mainly of deconstructed, acoustic versions of oldies like Something I Can Never Have, The Fragile, The Becoming and The Day The World Went Away, along with a handful of short instrumental fillers and one new song, a typically bleak, brooding track that is the set’s title cut. It’s OK, as are a couple of the reworked oldies, which kinda sound like what we imagine Nine Inch Nails would be like on Unplugged. But too much of the time, this sounds more like Trent doing a Tori Amos impersonation.

I’ll say this for Reznor, though: He puts out some damn nice-looking albums. As usual, And All That Could Have Been is a tastefully superb package — a nice cloth mini-box, quality printing, a foldout double inner tray, a 24-page book that could win graphic design awards. Hell, I’ll give him an extra half star for the packaging alone. If only the rest of this set were as impressive. If only the live album felt like a vital historical document instead of a bland cash-in. If only the studio tracks were more inspired and involving instead of just retreads. If only Trent could have lived up to his potential instead of coasting.

Then, maybe And All That Could Have Been would have been all that it could have been.