When a great artist from one decade returns to action in another, the best that can usually be hoped for is a reasonable approximation of the old brilliance.
Prince's comeback tour last year may have been wonderful, but he still wasn't the man with the breathtaking creativity of his "Dirty Mind"/"Purple Rain" days.
What made Trent Reznor's comeback performance Sunday night at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival such a triumph was that Reznor didn't just recapture the '90s spark that placed him alongside the late Kurt Cobain as the premier rock voices of their generation.
Playing on the main stage in the closing hours of the weekend festival, which drew about 50,000 fans each day, the muscular Reznor was even more compelling than before.
On a crowded bill with such fast-rising critical favorites as the Arcade Fire and Bright Eyes, Reznor's band, Nine Inch Nails, played with the hunger of the new kids on the block.
In such early albums as "Pretty Hate Machine" and "The Downward Spiral," Reznor brought to the rock mainstream an anger and aggression that was largely unprecedented -- songs of alienation and self-loathing that connected so strongly with young rock fans that hundreds of bands picked up on it, though they captured only the aggression, not Reznor's artful edges.
Drawing the loudest cheers of the weekend when he took the stage with his new NIN lineup, Reznor reunited the aggression and the art. He still sang the darkest of his high-energy tales with a passion and power that made his voice seem like the cry of a man trapped in the back wing of a sanitarium -- someone stripped of his faith and future.
Yet he brought a new tenderness and insight to the softest and greatest of his tunes, "Hurt," and to key songs from NIN's new album, "With Teeth," which went on sale today.
It's as if Reznor's struggle against the drug and alcohol addiction that kept him off the road for some five years was a humbling and revealing experience that has helped him bring new depth to the music.
In the new "The Line Begins to Blur," which came early in the set, Reznor shared the confusion of his addiction, acknowledging a vulnerability that is at times overpowering.
There are things I would never do
There are fears I cannot believe have come true.
Reznor, who moved between keyboards and guitar, was backed superbly by this NIN lineup, which brightened the old sound slightly by emphasizing guitar rather than synthesizer.
Given the normally laid-back Coachella crowd, there were tense moments before NIN's set. Fans, some of whom had traveled from around the country, pressed so hard against the front barriers in the open field that security guards had to help lift them to safety.
Once the music started, however, fans simply celebrated the return of a hero.
"Celebrate" may sound like an odd term to describe the reaction to music so relentlessly dark. But there was a sense of community among the fans, some of whom spoke after the set about the cleansing nature of the visceral sound.
There was also much celebration elsewhere on the vast festival grounds as fans checked out old favorites, including England's Gang of Four and New Order, and new ones.
Of them all, the Arcade Fire came the closest to Nine Inch Nails to stealing the day. The group's music has an epic yet deeply personal feel, blending lyrics about such heavy topics as death and fidelity with musical touches that span guitars and violins to keyboards and accordions to constantly flame the Fire.
Another great young force is Conor Oberst, the young man from Omaha who may just be the best pure, folk-accented singer-songwriter since that great '70s crop of "new Dylans."
But Oberst, who tours and records under the group name Bright Eyes, focused Sunday on the sophisticated, heavily layered arrangements found in his recent "rock" album, "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn."
Some songs rate with his best ever, and the army of musicians (including synthesizer, guitarist, cellist, violinist, two drummers) captured marvelously at times the freewheeling nature of Oberst's image-rich lyrics. Still, the approach Sunday didn't reflect the satisfying nature of his mostly acoustic, folk-leaning "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" album, or Oberst's presentation of "Morning" songs recently at the Orpheum Theatre.
Blessed with mid-'80s weather this weekend, Coachella felt especially rewarding and relevant in a time when lots of interesting new acts are arriving, especially from England, whether it's such rockers as Kasabian, Futureheads, Razorlight and Bloc Party or the commentary and dance-world infectiousness of M.I.A., who performed in one of the side tents. Hip-hop also was a step forward for the predominantly alt-rock event.
The joy of Coachella -- and the reason it has become the nation's most respected rock festival -- is that promoter Paul Tollett and his team at Goldenvoice pack the bill each year with the best available contemporary acts, rather than just go with names on the latest sales chart.
As he stood backstage at the end of the night, Tollett was already thinking about next year. "Who would you like to see?" he asked one young fan.
It's a question he'll ask many times until he's got the 2006 lineup in place. He's not taking a poll, just trying to get turned on to new favorites.
In an age when everything from radio playlists to record company promotion dollars are often wasted on commercially promising but hollow artists, Tollett keeps his focus on music that matters. That's ultimately why Coachella itself matters.