Last May, I was fortunate enough to catch A Perfect Circle and Tool live within several weeks of each other, and while the scale of each show was obviously impressive by their own merits, I was somewhat taken aback by how personal each set felt. While Tool tends to deal in grander realms of the metaphysical, A Perfect Circle – the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Billy Howerdel, fronted by Maynard James Keenan – has always worn a sound that aims to invoke a more intimate mix of emotions. This singularity is achieved on Eat The Elephant, the group’s first studio album in fourteen years, which conveys the clearest sense of this band’s musical purpose out of all their short but complex discography. Most of the songs are quiet, but their messages resonate loudly. The performances are delicate, but executed without prejudice. Eat The Elephant rarely explodes – it instead floats in the sky, free from the burden of trying to be as bombastic as its predecessors. As such, the album will certainly catch a number of listeners off guard, which is perhaps the best part of it all.
Whereas it would have been far too easy to create a dark and depressive work of art amidst today’s tumultuous world affairs, A Perfect Circle have refreshingly made a record that sounds at once mysterious, vibrant, and in some cases, downright optimistic. This is not to say that Eat The Elephant blocks out its darker elements, but that there are multiple textures being shaded in to reveal a grander picture. Howerdel’s piano takes the brazen lead for the majority of the album’s twelve songs, turning its heavier outings (“The Doomed,” “TalkTalk” and “Hourglass”) into bookmarks that beckon its listeners to not only notice but feel the mood change. This technique of letting the guitar take the backseat works wonders in bringing out the personality of tracks such as the opening title piece, “Disillusioned,” and the brilliant “Feathers,” the latter two of which hold their own as some of the band’s best material put forth to date.
There is something to be said for every song on this album though. Both “Delicious” and the aptly titled “So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish” – with witty and poignant lyrics referencing the recent influx of celebrity passings – feel like new, inspired ground for the band, yet despite fourteen years of space in between releases, hold nothing that feels unnatural. “The Contrarian” and “By And Down The River” are slower, more ominous crawls through some of the most impactful lyrics Keenan has penned (“Moving in and out of shadows/It’s no easy mission/Holding onto how I picture you”). This cross-stitching of moods between songs is one of the factors A Perfect Circle have always brought to their recorded works; I am reminded of “The Nurse Who Loved Me” and “Pet” playing back to back on Thirteenth Step. Two songs that could not be more different, yet flow together so well. Its use on Eat The Elephant brings a variance to the record and thoroughly defines its edges with surgical precision.
A lot of talk has circulated around the meaning of album title, the lyrics of each song, and the potentially political undertones the band may be striving towards with this release. My take on the matter, after listening to the album at least a dozen times, is that it is art, and there is no clear answer. A sizable chunk of Keenan’s lyrics feel more outwardly aimed than introspective as they have in the past. “The Contrarian” and “The Doomed” in particular feel like cautionary tales aimed towards modern society. At the end of it all however, the reality is that what these songs were written about is less than important than what the listener believes that they were written about. It is part of the band’s mystique.
A Perfect Circle’s music has always felt like the product of natural selection, never being forced into existence but rather coming into its own over eons of time. Eat The Elephant is proof of this, and while it is tempting to call this a new era for the band, this is the evolution they have been ascending towards for nearly two decades now. It is a record that will entice many, excite some, and divide others (as all logical steps forward in a group’s artistic direction do), but I can say without doubt that it is an impressive and welcome addition to their archive of material.
Eat The Elephant will be released through BMG on April 20th and can be pre-ordered from the band’s official website.