Nine Inch Nails – Still

July 19, 2007

When Trent Reznor released the live album 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. You used to be able to find it for purchase on Nine Inch Nails’ website, but it’s sale was discontinued. And 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 am so used to hearing Reznor’s brutal beats 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 the Fragile sessions. And in fact, a lot of what The Fragile 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 Still contains, it is still emotionally biting and as destructive as any other Halo.

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. 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 true winners.

One song that needs to be individually addressed is The Becoming. Upon the release of The Downward Spiral, the song was dismissed as being annoying and kitschy with it’s repeating backdrop of the sounds of people screaming in terror. And yet it was one of the best songs on the album. In any case, the song is extremely heavy and probably not meant for Still, an album that prides itself on albums of the exact opposite stature. Some might say it works, and others might say it doesn’t. There is something completely convincing about Reznor not refraining himself from screaming his lungs out and doing the original version justice even in this stripped down version. It is an important song and represents The Downward Spiral very well. It is usually by the time The Becoming rolls around that the listener realizes that The Downward Spiral is a themed album, about someone going completely insane and throwing everything away, one piece at a time. The lyrics “it won’t give up/it wants me dead/god damn this noise inside my head” is the final straw that collapses the camels back and makes the listener realize what is going on with haunting precision. In this way, it is essential, even though it’s sound and anger does not fit in with Still. It is a more instrumentally reserved version that is well appreciated.

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 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 album is. It might be his most valuable, rewarding disk. Triumph feels great.

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