After a 14 year hiatus, Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel return with A Perfect Circle’s third full-length album, Eat the Elephant. That’s right, Tool has released original material more recently than A Perfect Circle. But, where we’ve come to expect what a new Tool album would sound like, given the similarities between Lateralus and 10,000 Days, oddly enough things are even more mysterious with Keenan’s side-gig. A Perfect Circle’s debut Mer de Noms and follow-up LP Thirteenth Step showed that the band didn’t have any intentions of repeating themselves. Likewise, Eat the Elephant stands alone as a singular entry into their catalog.
This isn’t an album full of loud guitars and fringe-metal riffs. This album is mellow. It’s complicated. And it has more piano and keyboards at the forefront than soaring guitar leads or Keenan’s interminable wails. Quite the opposite, the band finds power and depth when the music is restrained and Keenan has room to let his vocals fill the space effortlessly. Indeed, Keenan’s voice steals the show among this collection of 12 songs. Not to minimizes Howerdel’s contributions, he plays nearly all the instruments and wrote all the music.
Highlights of the album include the first two singles “TalkTalk” and “Disillusioned.” Both tracks are concise and measured offerings that blend both Howerdel and Keenan’s talents perfectly. Likewise, “Delicious,” “By And Down The River,” and “The Doomed” show that the pair have a relationship that deserved this third album. Dense and layered, these songs show the growth in Howerdel as a songwriter and the command and dynamics Keenan continues to developed in his voice. It is indeed rare that anyone 25 years into their career can become stronger and more compelling as vocalist. Musically, lyrically, and vocally, “Feathers” is the standout track on the album. As the music vacillates between loud and quiet, Keenan ties it altogether with one of his strongest vocal performance on any recording. It’s simply delightful. It’s the song you play when someone tells you they’ve never heard A Perfect Circle.
But, there are some duds on this album. “Hourglass” sounds like it would work perfectly on a Puscifer album, yet sounds forced among the other 11 tracks here. The electronic effects on Keenan’s voice are unnecessary and don’t add a deeper level to the song. Without effects, Keenan’s voice is almost recognizable on “The Contrarian” – which is interesting for the first 30 seconds before he reverts to his more familiar tone. The albums third single, “So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish” is borderline pop-y, but ultimately undermined by weak lyrics. It ticks the box for “different,” but doesn’t succeed in its own right as a good song. If it was the 90s and this was a hidden track that appeared 69 minutes after the albums final cut, it would be entertaining. But, it’s not and it isn’t. By the time you do reach album closer, “Get The Lead Out,” there’s an overwhelming feeling that this is just the same song you heard three or four songs ago. There’s nothing remarkable, even though the band does continue to tinker around with instrumentation and sound, throwing in some vinyl scratches because…hell, why not?
The album is great for a low-key listening session and excels further while wearing headphones, but overall the songs are largely uneventful and sometimes predictable. Often when songs build into an anticipatory crescendo they end instead of paying off. Or when they make it there, the guitars sound generic and obligatory. Lyrically, Keenan’s writing is uneven, wavering between the mysterious and the banal. Touted as a socially conscious album, the lyrics sound sophomoric rather than sophisticated. And for crying out loud is this album cover awful. It’s just embarrassing. It looks like a stock cover for any modern day alternative band who wants to sell t-shirts to teenagers. It captures nothing about the album, its title, or sound.
Doubtless, fans of the band will find this an intriguing and different album. But, this isn’t anything we’ll be talking about 14 years from now as a masterstroke of ingenuity. If you can put aside your expectations and take in the album without considering the duos past output, or the work of their other bands, it is an enjoyable album to listen to – mostly for Keenan’s incredible voice and the sounds that percolate in the background. But, while there are a lot of great moments over the course of the album, it’s mostly underwhelming.
– J. Kevin Lynch