CD Special – And All That Could Have Been / Still, by Nine Inch Nails

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As I mentioned yesterday, And All That Could Have Been was released as a CD set and a DVD set. The CD set itself, however, was released in two different configurations – the Live CD sold as a standalone unit, which served as the “default” configuration for the audio half, and a Deluxe version that combined the Live CD with an album of new and reinterpreted material titled Still. For people who had not bought the Deluxe 2CD set, Still was made available through mail order for much of the 2000s, and was later added to nin.com’s online store, before selling out in 2013. Currently, it is primarily available through the echoingthesound.org user heavenly_bearded, for $5 + shipping charges per CD. The only other option is secondhand resale, which spikes the price up significantly, and is absolutely not worth it.

Now then.

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The Deluxe packaging is unusual – the CDs are packaged in a standard six-panel digipak with an included booklet, but the digipak itself slides into a cloth-covered, cardboard slipcase, with the album title pressed onto it, and a cardboard tracklist sheet glued to the back. The cloth gives the outer casing a strange feel in the hand, emphasizing the deluxe nature of the packaging.

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The individual albums are packaged less extravagantly, both receiving standard digipak cases. Interestingly, the booklet included with Live has no pocket to sit in – it simply is held in the case by the loose pressure of the case’s folds. Still‘s case is even more minimal, a four-panel digipak with a sleeve for the tiny booklet. Every version of And All That Could Have Been uses a unified color scheme of brown, grey, and greenish-blue, with the different packages emphasizing different primary colors.

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Yesterday, we talked about Live as an album. Today, we’ll be talking about Still. And let me tell you, Still is a god damn work of art.

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A nine-song album consisting of four reinterpreted tracks from the Nine Inch Nails back catalogue mixed in with five original compositions, Still is a huge departure from the loud, aggressive music that came before it. For many of the songs, the primary instrument is a piano, accompanied by a variety of instruments, including a muted acoustic guitar, low-mixed wind instruments, electronic noise, and, of course, Trent’s own voice.

The reinterpretations mostly strip away the aggression of the original songs, instead emphasizing the elements of desperation and sadness common in NIN songs of this era. For “Something I Can Never Have,” the crushing depression the protagonist conveys in his pained vocals are even more evident when not hidden by the strange mechanical noises of the original. “The Fragile” becomes a desperate cry, an attempt for the protagonist to convince himself that he can truly help the woman he loves, as opposed to the original’s loud, brash declarations. “The Day the World Went Away” is given an even longer outro, conveying more than ever the sheer amount of hopelessness that Reznor felt in the wake of his grandmother’s death.

The album’s real selling point, however, are the five original tracks included. Of the five, four are instrumentals, commonly said to be mostly sourced from a rejected soundtrack for the Robin Williams-starring One Hour Photo. All five are quiet, gorgeous compositions, carrying a mostly unified sound that is separate from Reznor’s work on The Fragile three years earlier.

“Adrift and At Peace” adopts some of the melodies from The Fragile‘s “La Mer”; Reznor has noted in interviews that “Adrift and At Peace” is an “emotional conclusion” to the latter song. “Gone, Still” is built on a menacing, repeated piano line that morphs into a new line halfway through the song without losing any of the tension built up to that point.

The closing trilogy of songs, however, is absolutely the high point of Still, and one of the best trio of songs Reznor has ever put together. “And All That Could Have Been” is a masterpiece, easily one of the greatest songs to come out of the era of The Fragile. In many ways, it represents the opposite sentiment of songs like “The Fragile” and “We’re in This Together”; where those two featured a protagonist determined to stay with his love as long as he possibly could, the protagonist for “And All That Could Have Been” knows that he cannot stay, that it is not safe or healthy for either of them, and implores his love to run as far away as she can. Reznor’s voice grows in strength and volume as the song goes on, his pain and sadness reaching its peak as the music swells to meet him. And, just like that, the song is over, giving way to the quiet drone of a piano in “The Persistence of Loss.”

“The Persistence of Loss” sits between two tracks that tend to outshine it, mainly because the song’s own instrumentation is incredibly subtle and quiet. Based around a set of low drones from a piano and what sounds like a cello, the song builds its layers as it goes, adding the plinking of higher piano notes, eventually throwing in a collection of sad, soft wind instruments that provide a counter-melody to the piano. Following the story that “And All That Could Have Been” begins, this song really does its best to drive home the previous song’s conclusion. “The Persistence of Loss” is the sound of solitude.

The album, and the era of The Fragile as a whole, closes with “Leaving Hope.” Opening with a quick piano line in the higher register, another, slower line takes over, as the crackling of electronic noises swell and fade in the background. This line becomes the song’s primary melody, as the backing music shifts with the electronic drone fading in and out. The melody shifts as it goes along, conveying the sound of acceptance of one’s fate, bringing to a close the protagonist’s struggle throughout the final third of Still. Despite the song’s title, it leaves one with just the slightest glimmer of hope as the album concludes, with the song’s primary melody returning to the forefront as the song’s electronic noise swishes along in the background, providing waves and waves of sound under the slow, plucky piano line. Still ends with over a minute of electronic droning, fading away until nothing is left but silence.

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Still is an album that doesn’t receive much attention outside of the more dedicated, fanatical NIN fanbase. The difficulty of actually obtaining the album combined with a lack of promotion and relegation to being a pack of bonus material made Still a hidden gem in the Nine Inch Nails catalogue, as essential to the Nine Inch Nails canon as any other studio album.

If only it came out on vinyl. Get to it, Trent.

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Tomorrow: And All That Could Have Been, the double-DVD.

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