When A Perfect Circle dropped debut album Mer De Noms in 2000, the rock supergroup managed to exceed, or at least match, the lofty expectations its high-profile membership (led by Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan) garnered. The brilliant debut opus remains a staple in my listening rotation nearly 20 years later, and 2003 follow-up Thirteenth Step proved a worthy successor. Before inevitable clashes with the band member’s various main projects resulted in a 14-year recording hiatus, they dropped the ill-advised and overtly political 2004 covers album eMOTIVe. Now A Perfect Circle finally return with their highly anticipated fourth LP, Eat the Elephant. Josh Freese, Danny Lohner, Paz Lenchantin and Jeordie White are gone from the extensive list of musicians featured on eMOTIVe, leaving a line-up comprising of Keenan, bandleader Billy Howerdel, drummer Jeff Friedl, guitarist James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins) and bassist Matt McJunkins. A band returning from a lengthy hiatus is a scenario often fraught with danger, coupled with the hefty burden of anticipation. With two high-quality melancholic rock albums to their name, can A Perfect Circle recapture the glory on Eat the Elephant?
Right off the bat, Eat the Elephant marks a far more chilled and mellow addition to the A Perfect Circle repertoire, retaining the band’s emotive and moody rock template, but skewing it into more restrained, eclectic and atmospheric directions. Eat the Elephant sounds like A Perfect Circle while also marking a notable shift, not entirely surprising considering the lengthy gap between releases and the eclectic career paths of its creators. The more guitar-driven format of earlier releases is largely jettisoned in favor of a strong emphasis on piano and keyboard melodies, electronic undertones and subtly textured guitar work. Eat the Elephant’s laid-back, pop-infected approach makes for a soothing journey, punctuated by the occasional upturn in quality from the frequently solid material. Opener “Eat the Elephant” offers a chilled but richly sung introduction, reflecting the album’s mellow and often surprising twists with beautiful results and touching melodies.
Although there’s nothing on Eat the Elephant as instantly addictive as “Judith,” “Hollow,” or “Weak and Powerless,” or as hauntingly soothing and memorable as “3 Libras” and “Orestes,” there’s still plenty to like about the slow-burning and less immediate material here. The fat rhythms, tasteful orchestral embellishments and edgier Maynard vocals boost “The Doomed,” while “TalkTalk” wields silky melodies and soft-loud change-ups around a densely layered and dynamic composition, featuring an alternately gritty and melodic performance from Maynard as he takes another angry swipe at religion. Perhaps the biggest shock to the system comes via the quirky, ’80s influenced, “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish.” The song’s bright, poppy cadence rubbed me the wrong way initially, but I’ve since been swayed by its charms, particularly the epic orchestral build-ups and emotive, catchy vocal hooks. Eat the Elephant‘s back half feels a bit bloated and inconsistent, though is not without its striking moments, particularly the powerhouse, acoustic-tinged rock drive of “Delicious.”
He may come across as a pretentious douche who takes pleasure in pissing off his fans, especially the creepily obsessive factions of the Tool fan-base, but Maynard remains one of modern rock’s elite vocalists and his singing throughout Eat the Elephant is outstanding. Maynard delivers an often subdued, emotive and mature performance, showing no signs of weariness as his voice ages gracefully. My only gripe is not hearing more of his signature aggressive vocal style. Meanwhile, the poor dynamics do the album little favors, with a squashed master detracting from the depth of Howerdel’s lush arrangements. I’m also a stickler for track sequencing and aren’t too keen on how it’s handled here, with the song clusters not always proving beneficial to the flow of the album, especially the decision to open the album with three solid but dreamily downbeat and low energy cuts.
Despite its flaws, Eat the Elephant has wormed its way into my good books over repeated listens and is an album worthy of the slow-burning “grower” tag. A Perfect Circle haven’t returned with a plan to rehash past glories, instead crafting an album of rich texture and melody, subtle complexities, and less immediate but gradually revealing hooks. The low energy feel permeating the album sets it back at times, as does the bloated length, but Eat the Elephant features enough variety and impressive moments to reside on the positive end of the ledger, marking a solid return…. And a pleasant distraction from the horrendous cover art.