Maynard James Keenan is a many with many sides. A Perfect Circle originally showed Tool fans a more subdued side of Keenan when it debuted back in the ’90s, and it also proved he could sing his ass off. When the group’s debut Mer De Noms was released, Tool was still thought of as a metal band. A Perfect Circle could never be called metal, at least not by anyone who knew what metal was at the time, but the band had a harder rock edge when the dynamics called for it. But a lot about music has changed since then. The bar has been raised as to what people consider metal—what was extreme then is decidedly not in 2018. So that’s not what anyone would expect to hear, but to wait almost 15 years to find out the band’s long-awaited fourth album, Eat the Elephant, opens with a piano ballad? Well, that was a surprise.
The guitars show up on the second track “Disillusioned,” which lyrically offers some of Keenan’s characteristic social commentary. It splits the difference between Tool and what we have heard from this project in the past, with streamlined, mainstream rock production. With a marginal increase in mood, Keenan’s vocals drift higher on “Contrarian,” Which has more in common with the Pet Shop Boys than Tool. There are some interesting guitar textures, which is more than can be said of the first two songs. Four songs later we get “The Doomed,” on which the guitars get much more metallic. In fact it’s a more of a clear-cut metal riff than the band typically trades in, and it’s complemented by a tinkling synth riff.
Keenan, like a good majority of people in the U.S. right now, is not pleased with the direction in which the country is going. So for an album that deals with that kind of subject matter, Eat the Elephant is a surprisingly happy album when A Perfect Circle are not languishing in the ballads. “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” feels like post-’90s David Bowie musically, with harmonized vocals. In fact, it even name-drops both Major Tom and Willy Wonka in this state of the union. “TalkTalk” is more of political statement wherein the holier-than-thou are given a dressing down: “Sit and talk like Jesus/Try walking like Jesus.”
“Delicious” reveals more of a traditional rock format, and a showcase for more traditional rock songwriting, which is odd for this band. Even though A Perfect Circle has always been more concise and accessible than Tool, it’s never been that straightforward. The most compelling song on here is the weird electro groove of “Hourglass,” which sounds more like another of Keenan’s many projects: Puscifer. But there’s still a lot of odd stylistic takes here: “Feathers” is an atmospheric rock power ballad, while “Get the Lead Out” balances that heavy piano presence with a rhythmic hip-hop backing. Even when sounding warmer, more relaxed and straightforward, A Perfect Circle come across a lot better than most bands on the radio. As my therapist used to remind me: It’s not bad, it’s just different.