It’s been 14 years since A Perfect Circle’s last album, eMOTIVe. Now, after over a decade of hiatus, vocalist Maynard James Keenan and guitarist Billy Howerdel have realized a new vision for their collaboration. Eat the Elephant is a different beast altogether. It is by far the band’s softest and most poppy album, squashing any hope for a return to the likes of Mer de Noms. For better or worse, the APC of 2000 is gone.
EtE is, however, the logical progression for APC, if you follow the trajectory of their catelogue. The band has gradually been reducing the complexity of their sound, softening it, becoming more electronic, and focussing primarily on political messaging, through the vocals and lyrics. EtE is more of a power pop album than metal or even rock. You will not find a “Judith” or “The Outsider” here. That being said, EtE does have something to offer. It is pretty, but resoundingly broody. EtE relies on it’s lyrical ideas and gives you a voice to commiserate with, if that’s what you seek.
Luckily, Maynard’s voice is in top form, given how exposed it is throughout. The instrumentation is minimalist, often leaving sections of vocals with little but a piano accompaniment. Billy Howerdel wrote the melodies for the entire album on piano, and then found ways to conform guitar and drums to the keys, and it’s pretty obvious.
This is especially evident in the opening track, “Eat the elephant,” for which the album is named. It is perhaps the most somber, plodding, hopeless introductory track there is. As the title implies, the song is about the attempt to begin a task that appears insurmountable. It is full of apprehension and fear. Although I applaud the music’s successful attempt to capture these emotions, I’m not sure it is the right appetizer for a 12 track rock album. This song sends the message that you are about to experience a painstakingly marose, slow, and stripped down collection of songs, and maybe that’s not far off. The track, “Eat the Elephant,” reminds me of a less successful “Young & Old & Divine Longing,” by post-rock group Gregor Samsa.
There’s no question that Howerdel sought a minimalist approach to the instrumentation. When I first heard the drums, I was positive they were not only programmed, but by someone who wasn’t interested in percussion as an artform. When I found out that not only were they real, but that four different drummers contributed to the album, I was surprised and not particularly impressed. The drums feel like an afterthought—mere filler.
Track two, “Dissolusioned,” does pick up tempo (as if it would be possible not to). But again, much of the song is devoted to muted vocal lines hanging amongst single piano chords for bars on end. The drums function as little more than a metronome. It’s clearly all about the lyrics, which focus on society’s addiction to smart phones, and the damage this addiction causes. It’s an interesting discussion to have, but Keenan often flirts with preachiness, as is the case here. Lines like “time to put the silicon obsession down” are less of an exploration and more of an instruction.
Track three, “The Contrarian,” again is about the lyrics and vocals. The lines are back-dropped by a simple accompaniment of drums and keys for the majority of the song. The lyrics themselves are a not so veiled criticism of not only Donald Trump, but of those who are taken in by such con-men in general. The ideas here are interesting, but the way they are framed makes it impossible to separate Maynard James Keenan from the speaker of the lyrics. Those that follow Keenan’s politics understand what he’s getting at, and lines such as “beware, belie his smile,” again come off as an instruction aimed at a less enlightened audience.
“The Doomed” at least broaches its social commentary from a more creative angle. The song is a sarcastic re-imagining of the beatitudes of Christian scripture. It’s difficult again to not think about Keenan’s personal views on religion here, but perhaps that’s his intention. The lyrics proclaim, “blessed are the fornicates…blessed are the rich…blessed are the envious…the gluttonous,” etc. It is a biting examination of the hypocrisy of those who claim to be righteous defenders of the people, but actually use their power to exploit them. The music, however, remains a repetitive, plodding rhythm that slowly builds from start to finish, with no real climax to be found.
“So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish” is a stand out track on the album. It is decidedly more upbeat. The vocals are layered with interesting harmonies. There are guitars, piano, strings, and a drum beat that is more than endless quarter notes. The lyrics still are critical of the menial things we choose to focus on in life, having “wasted every second dime on diets, lawyers, shrinks and apps and flags and plastic surgery.” It highlights our limited time on Earth by referencing a smattering of recent celebrity deaths—Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Carrie Fisher, etc.
Adhering to the album’s overarching critical messaging, “Talk Talk” is a direct criticism of those in power for not appropriately addressing the issue of gun violence in America. Appropriately, Keenan does display true anger in his voice during the chorus of this one, making it the edgiest track on EtE. He calls out politicians for claiming to be Christ-like and yet being indifferent to the suffering of the masses. At times the tone shifts from anger to a desperate plea for action: “don’t be the problem, be the solution.” I can’t help but notice that this album was released on the anniversary of the Columbine massacre, and I doubt that was a coincidence.
“By and Down the River,” is beautiful, musically. The piano and strings in the intro are lovely, and evocative. The lyrics however, are simply Keenan venting about how much he hates Trump, and the man’s lack of humility. Around the two minute mark, there seems to be a build toward a dramatic moment, but Howerdel misses the mark and puts forth a lack-luster, simplistic guitar part.
The following track, “Delicious,” is as proggy as this album will get. There are some interesting off-beat parts, surprising key changes and some dense chords. The lyrics reflect on the delight the speaker feels in watching the arrogant deal with the consequences of bold but foolish actions. In a vacuum, the lyrics feel like a mere self-righteous indulgence, but in the context of the album, and of the times, one can’t help but connect this idea again to Donald Trump, and the perception of a White House meltdown.
Any inkling that EtE may gain energy at this point is immediately crushed by “DLB,” a two minute instrumental transition that is painfully slow and sullen. It feels like a callback to the opening title track when it’s least wanted. Many acts have successfully incorporated beautiful and somber interludes in an album (Check out Fallujah for an example). “DLB” fails to engage in any meaningful way.
“Hourglass” is another song that distinguishes itself. Perhaps more akin to a song from Puscifer, one of Keenan’s other projects, “Hourglass” is decidedly electronic. Most of the instrumentation is techno-styled keyboards. The vocals are immensely digitally distorted, and the beat is much dancier than the other tracks. If you heard only this track, you would have an utterly flawed perception of what EtE is about, and perhaps that’s a good thing. This album lacks dynamics, and this track does act as a palette cleanser. The lyrics are again critical of the political class, calling out the oligarchs and both major political parties for not addressing societal problems, despite clear warning signs of the future to come.
The penultimate track, “Feathers,” is much more successful than the other slow and somber tracks on EtE. The vocals are beautiful and heart-wrenching. We bounce back and forth between passages of utterly exposed vocals and dramatic instrumental accompaniments. There is a simple, yet dense and gripping guitar section, something that is otherwise missing throughout the album. The lyrics finally abandon a direct critique of others, and instead focus on a real human connection through struggle. Keenan actually uses the word “we” here, instead of directly addressing the audience. Lines like “knowing little of your wounding, share our mending all the same,” celebrate the interdependence of society, and of people’s giving nature.
EtE ends with “Get the Lead Out,” which begins with purposefully detuned sections, reminiscent of the outro of Opeth’s “Burden.” This form is quickly abandoned for a slow, booming, almost hip-hop beat. There are some different filters on the vocals, and what sounds like a violin finger-plucked melody. The song is a direct, but vague, call to action. Perhaps the slow, plodding rhythm mimicks Keenan’s view of the audience, sitting around chatting and not actually accomplishing anything. Though I do find it appropriate to end the album with a directive to get off our duffs and go address the problems he’s been highlighting, the song is ironically sapping. This is not the energizing call to action one might expect, but perhaps it’s being sarcastic, an apathetic succumbing to the expectation of inaction. Whatever the intention, it is a slow, forgettable and boring way to send off the listeners.
Mer de Noms this is not. Nor should we expect to hear that APC again. This album has been called a “maturation” of APC’s sound. I agree that this stripped down, refined sound was not by accident, and it falls in line with the trajectory of the band, but it may not be the sound that long time fans were hoping for. EtE is a decently pretty collection of songs. It has its moments. Lyrically, it is extremely political and judgmental, and you may find solace in the message if you agree with Keenan’s view of the times. It is a fine companion to sit beside while scoffing at the world around you. In this regard, I don’t find it particularly mature at all. If EtE‘s intent is to bring people on board to these ideas, I believe it fails. Rather, I expect it will be a comfort to those who already feel as its writers feel, and that may be good enough.
FAVORITE TRACK: “Feathers”
RELEASE DATE: 4/20/2018
FOR FANS OF: Tool, Karnivool