A Perfect Circle – Eat The Elephant Review
Posted by jEX on
In 1999, Tool lead vocalist Maynard James Keenan and guitarist Billy Howerdel teamed up with a rotating group of musicians from other bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson to create a supergroup called A Perfect Circle. The goal was to create something that was a little more mainstream than Keenan’s main project. They went on to achieve widespread critical and fan acclaim with “Mer De Noms” in 2000, and “Thirteenth Step” in 2003.
Unfortunately, just like Tool, who is notorious for taking an eternity to put out new material, it has taken 14 years for A Perfect Circle to put out a new LP. Well, they’re finally back, and they’ve got a new album called “Eat the Elephant”, but should we even be excited? 14 years is a long ass time. After all, bands can change drastically over far shorter periods. Does A Perfect Circle still have “it” so to speak. Lets dive in…
The Song By Song
This task ahead
This task at hand
Ominous and daunting
Crippling undertaking, I’m frozen
Where to begin eludes me
Without you to remind me
The album begins with the title track “Eat the Elephant“, a piano based ballad. I immediately had chills as the main piano motif hit and the first verse started. That’s when you’ll notice the first high point of the album which is how amazing lead singer Maynard James Keenan’s voice sounds throughout. Considering he’s 54 years old it’s not unreasonable to question how well his vocals would hold up. I don’t know if he’s aging like fine wine or technology is just working wonders but he’s never sounded better. Lyrically, the song seems to touch upon how MJK himself must feel making new APC music after 14 years with the bands past 2 albums (not counting covers album “Emotive“) widely regarded as classics if not downright masterpieces. The title comes from an expression that means to take things step by step when facing a daunting task. Maynard croons…
Just take the step
Just take the swing
Just take the bite
Just go all in
The whole thing reminds me of the song “Pressure” by Staind, another amazing song that came after the singer felt tremendous pressure to follow up on their highly successful debut.
This transitions seamlessly into the song “Disillusioned” a critique of modern smart phone obsessed society that encourages folks to “put the silicone obsession down” and reconnect with others. It’s timely and one of the best songs on the disc, however, I’m not a huge fan of the arrangement which slows things down to a crawl at the midsection, throwing off all momentum, before building back up again. I have no doubt this was deliberate to reflect the moment of the song that talks about finding “a way in the silence”, and maybe I’m part of the problem by being an “addict of the immediate”, but I much rather would have preferred a more traditional verse, chorus, verse, chorus structure, then the long breakdown. Heard immediately after the opening track it’s not as jarring and works better, but it’s hard to jam out to by itself.
Next up we have “The Contrarian” which describes a snake oil salesman type figure who is a “contrarian” only to trick people to his side and is actually a liar who stands for nothing. Although the song doesn’t explicitly say it, judging from interviews about how this album is reflective of the “current political climate”, and the fact that the lyrics echo the exact sentiment of those on the political left, it’s clear the song is about Trump.
Melodically and instrumentally it’s a good song, but it represents one of the chief issues I have with the record as a whole. While APC has never strayed from writing songs that could ruffle some feathers (“Judith”), most of their back catalog has been more introspective and open to interpretation. By writing lyrics that are so on the nose, and confirming as much in interviews, it affects how the listener relates to it. With this in mind, I can’t help but think about how the pro-Trump people view the man, or the criticisms that could be equally leveled at the people who act blameless and tone deaf to the reasons why he got elected in the first place. The song and album is unsatisfying because it addresses none of this.
Fortunately, the albums first single, “The Doomed“, does a much better job of expressing a multi-dimensional message. Through a reversed version of the Beatitudes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount it speaks on the more broader aspects of our world, how the more corrupt people are rewarded and “blessed”, and the more decent people basically get shit on.
Blessed are the fornicates
May we bend down to be their whores
Blessed are the rich
May we labor, deliver them more
Blessed are the envious
Bless the slothful, the wrathful, the vain
Blessed are the gluttonous
May they feast us to famine and war
What of the pious, the pure of heart, the peaceful?
What of the meek, the mourning, and the merciful?
If you want to dissect it further the song is probably directed at Republicans, but it’s ambiguous enough for you to derive your own meaning. The song has a similar structure as “Disillusioned” in that it slows down in parts, but it’s not drawn out too long before reintroducing the full band again. The piano and ambience during the chorus give it almost a wintry feel, which contrasts well with the lyrics.
“So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish“, which takes its name from The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, reflects on all the celebrities that died in 2016. This makes it seem immediately dated to me, like I’m aware the song was written a couple years ago. It’s also oddly upbeat and sounds like something U2 would write, while still managing to feel like A Perfect Circle. It’s similar to the tonal shift heard in “Blue” off “Thirteenth Step”, and represents one of the many experimentations away from their core sound. Altogether, it’s not a bad song (I don’t think these guys can write a bad song), just not a great APC song.
The song “TalkTalk” is probably the closest fans will get to heavy bangers like “Judith” and “Pet”. It’s one of most traditional sounding APC songs on the album and it definitely kicks ass musically. Unfortunately, I once again find the lyrics disappointing. The song mocks those offering “thoughts and prayers” after mass killings as being like offering “cake in a crisis”, and complains about the Christian right being all talk and no action. Interviews seem to indicate MJK isn’t necessarily anti-gun, going so far as to call that solution “lazy” and pointing out the mental health issue, but lyrically it seems to parrot the exact words of the political left, which makes me wish the band would make a companion album to this one but from the opposite point of view.
One of the more puzzling additions is a remade version of “By and Down”, now called “By and Down the River“, which sounds almost the same as the original released on the greatest hits album “Three Sixty”, except it’s fuller, Maynard sings in a lower register, enunciates his words a little more clearly, and the ending is tweaked slightly.
The song itself is amazing, with a wonderful melody, poetic lyrics, and guitarist Billy Howerdel’s amazing leads, but the decision to remake it is strange. I assume the band simply wanted to include it and didn’t want the mix to sound different from the rest of the album.
The next two tracks didn’t really do much for me. Instrumentally, “Delicious” sounds like a Filter song, and “DLB“, a piano interlude, is a throwaway to me. “Hourglass” has a robotic and industrial vibe to it, which I dig, and while it’s a bit repetitive, it’s still a pretty good song to rock out to.
The high point of the album comes with the penultimate track, “Feathers“. I first heard the live version of it and immediately feel in love with it. Thankfully, the studio version does not disappoint. It’s the song that melodically, instrumentally, and lyrically sounds the most like A Perfect Circle to me.
Eyes of secrets, storm and story
Show and tell, we’ll make it through
Onus fate and undue odium
I’m our anchor, lead and stone
By the telling may they become
May they all be feathers
Moody, atmospheric, poetic. Even the arrangement is perfect, slowly introducing themes and building upon them over the almost 6 minute runtime. The presence of Howerdel’s guitar is almost like a second vocalist, and he delivers a hypnotic guitar solo before the final chorus that concludes beautifully with Maynard’s vocals over a piano. It’s not the final track, but it feels like the true album closer.
The actual closer is called “Get The Lead Out“, which features a stomp clap beat, turn table scratches, and vocal samples. Some have commented that the songs like this represent an evolution or modernization of their sound, but it doesn’t sound modern to me, more like a remix Moby would have made in the 90s, so I just see it as experimental.
As a long term fan I’m rather mixed on this album. It’s definitely not a runaway hit to me, but it’s not a total bust either. Like “Thirteenth Step” there’s a great deal of variety. Some of it is amazing, some great, some just ok. Musically, it’s better than their second and third albums, but the differing factor is that the less subtle, more topical lyrics and odd song structures were a bit off putting, and I didn’t relate to it as much, but depending on how you feel about these things your mileage may vary.
The Rebel Domain Score:
APC’s return after 14 years is, thankfully, pretty good musically, but the odd song structures and politically skewed lyrics may put off some fans.