It's both a relief and a surprise then to hear how driven Reznor sounds on NIN's new album, With Teeth. The disc isn't as nihilistic or last-nerve raw as 1994's The Downward Spiral, but the two albums share an affinity for infiltrating radio with sounds of disorder and destruction. He snarls like a crazy-eyed maniac, unleashes electroplated riffs, revisits the abrasive industrial of 1989's Pretty Hate Machine, and conjures Ministry's darkwave synth-pop, all within the parameters of neatly structured songs, not amorphous sound sketches.
"The Hand That Feeds" strangles haunted-forest macabre melodies and grayscale guitars around menacing nightmare beats, while the dusty piano on a sparse "Right Where It Belongs" -- the closest relation to the many isolation-booth-lonely Fragile instrumentals -- shifts imperceptibly with purpose. "All the Love in the World" even dabbles in industrial's descendent, glitchy IDM electro, and crescendos into a dance floor-friendly throb replete with Reznor falsetto coos and an untz-untz breakdown.
Yet the major improvement over Fragile stems from how Reznor reacts to his clawing demons, questioning their presence instead of feeling trapped by them. Rarely does he stand by with resignation and "stare into the sun" as he sings on "Sunspots." Instead Reznor sounds like someone who has just achieved conscious clarity after waking from a long nap and is suddenly thrust from blindness to sight, reverse-Oedipus style, and is really pissed off at what he sees.
"What if everything around you/Isn't quite as it seems/What if all the world you think you know/Is an elaborate dream?" he ponders on "Right Where It Belongs," finding more questions than answers. Elsewhere he rages, "Don't you fucking know what you are?" on one song and pleads, first plaintively and then with more anger: "Why do you get all the love in the world?" on another.
But Reznor's resilience is what ultimately makes Teeth a success. Both lyrically and musically the album points to a rebirth of energy and perspective. The subtle difference now is that Reznor believes he has the means to do something about the darkness. He isn't paralyzed by hopelessness and anger; he's energized by defeating them.