Following the work of Maynard James Keenan requires patience.
Following the work of Maynard James Keenan requires patience. Both of his most well-known projects, Tool and A Perfect Circle, have become running jokes within rock circles due to their perpetual refusal to put out new albums. Though the light is reportedly at the end of the tunnel, Tool’s last release still remains 2006’s 10,000 Days. Meanwhile, A Perfect Circle’s last release, eMOTIVe, was simply a covers album with just two original songs, with the last proper album dating back to 2003’s Thirteenth Step. Keenan is a notorious perfectionist, making it questionable whether either band would actually come back. When the album that would become Eat the Elephant was first teased, it was easy to say “I’ll believe it when I see it,” as the band began discussing new music as far back as 2008.
After a 14-year wait between albums, it’s disappointing but perhaps not surprising that Eat the Elephant is merely adequate. A Perfect Circle has never shied away from political themes (this was the focus of the eMOTIVe covers), but the most glaring mistake is that the message in the songs here feels dated and trite at best. “We’ve become disillusioned/ So we run towards anything glimmering/ Time to put the silicon obsession down,” Keenan sings on “Disillusioned,” and while this may have felt like a fresh sentiment back during the band’s heyday—or even when the band first talked about making new music—today it borders on being an Old Man Yells at Cloud plea.
Here, they rage against lying politicians (“Hello, he lied/ Like velvet this magician’s sleight of tongue and hand/ Hello, he lied/ Beware, belie his smile/ As warm and calculated as heroin/ Beware the contrarian”) and jabs at the religious right-wingers (“Blessed are the envious/ Bless the slothful, the wrathful, the vain/ Blessed are the gluttonous/ May they feast us to famine and war”) but fails to even attempt a fresh take. While the band was never known for its subtlety, it’s hard to listen to songs as exhilarating as Thirteen Step’s “The Package” or Mer De Nom’s “3 Libras” next to the songs of Elephant, even the best of them. Those previous albums also had the benefit of feeling cohesive throughout, while the most satisfying parts feel far more interesting than the whole here.
Eat the Elephant is both a sonically pleasing and perplexing experience, as it frequently plays within the band’s usual sound but often fails in its experiments. The Douglas Adams-referencing “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish”—a song that name-checks Prince and Florence Henderson in reference to plastic surgery—sounds like a band that has given into the temptation to play U2-lite adult contemporary in an attempt to shift units while oh-so-cleverly singing about nuclear destruction. Other songs do work: the title track announces itself with feverish cymbal crashes and a brooding piano line bolstering Keenan’s lilting voice that feels miles away from where the band left off, while “Hourglass” endears by being both dramatic and impossibly catchy, its chugging guitar riffs paired with gorgeous piano and overblown robot vocals. Lead single “The Doomed” may be one of the band’s best since “The Noose,” allowing itself to let its guitar noise feel appropriately dramatic and propulsive. There’s plenty to enjoy about this record—it’s just hard to not be disappointed that, after such a long wait, listeners have to wade through patches of blandness to get to the good stuff.