The genius of Trent Reznor's debut album as Nine Inch Nails, 1989's Pretty Hate Machine, was in its unselfconscious presentation of anger via pop: Growling angst, it accidentally proved, could be conveyed without resorting to heavy-metal clichés. With catchy choruses, it could even wriggle into the mainstream. The disc arguably invented industrial-pop, inarguably spawned tons of lesser imitations, and made Reznor an unlikely star, forcing him away from studio stewing and into the spotlight. Five years passed before The Downward Spiral, a solid set that buffed Pretty Hate Machine's edges and managed to make a hit out of the chorus "I want to fuck you like an animal."
It'd be tempting to blame the precipitous drop—in both quality and sales—that followed on a wandering muse or a deliberate push against the grain for the feisty Reznor, but that'd forgive 1999's overambitious The Fragile its excesses. Five years between albums might build anticipation, but it also builds expectation, and The Fragile didn't pack enough pop punch to justify its meanderings. Even the brazenly direct single "Starfuckers, Inc." couldn't muster the kind of sinister energy that made Nine Inch Nails' best tracks at least believable, though not always compelling.
With Teeth arrives after another five-year break, during which Reznor got sober and crept up on his 40th birthday, but didn't alter his musical personality much. The expansive instrumentals that littered The Fragile are gone, and what's left is a tight, straightforward set of serviceable Nine Inch Nails songs, with brief moments of inspiration and lots of fan- and radio-friendly hooks. The achingly deliberate single "The Hand That Feeds" sounds like a copy of the million tech-metal bands that Reznor inspired, the anger of "You Know What You Are?" feels more sought-out than stumbled-on, and "The Collector" roughs up three minutes, but doesn't hurt it too much. When Reznor gets away from Nine Inch By Numbers, things perk up: "Beside You In Time" stretches into unexplored territory, neither rote electro-rock or too-far-out experimentalism. On it, and on the weirdo final track, "Right Where It Belongs," Reznor sounds inspired rather than pushed. Sonically, those tracks have little to do with the music that made Nine Inch Nails famous, and maybe that's where middle age means for Reznor to go. He's clearly still capable of finding sparks, but they've changed location.