A Perfect Circle was never the same following the re-election of George W. Bush. Although the band had remained largely apolitical and introspective up until that point, the controversial ballot saw them abandon an impending hiatus to deliver one last hurrah, in the form of 2004’s overly political, covers collection eMotive. Though less well-received than their earlier material, cuts from eMotive have continued to make up a significant portion of their live shows, following their 2010 reformation and, once again, we find politics to be the driving force behind their first studio effort in fourteen years: the oddly titled Eat The Elephant.
While it’s baffling cover art remains entirely enigmatic, the “Elephant” of the record’s title has, perhaps, a few discernible targets. On the surface, it would seem to imply the existence of a large, seemingly-impossible task, that must be taken one step at a time, or “bite” as the case may be, to resolve—an “ominous and daunting, crippling undertaking”, according to the lyrics of the title-track. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to ignore possible allusions to the U.S. Republican Party and the proverbial “elephant in the room” who currently holds office. Yet, the political approach on this record is far more reflective than that shown on eMotive, with the band predominately pointing the fingers at the kinds of people and systematic problems that lead to such a situation, rather than the figurehead himself. The attempt to reconcile their original introspective approach with their outward, political motivations is appreciated. Unfortunately, the results are less than convincing.
The A Perfect Circle of 2018 is not the same outfit that left us in 2005. The band, who previously incorporated members and associates of such celebrated acts as Tool, Nine Inch Nails, The Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson and The Vandals—as well as future members of Queens of the Stone Age, and The Pixies—have now essentially become the Howerdel and Keenan show, with Howerdel performing nearly one hundred percent of the music and a hefty portion of the vocals to boot. APC has always been Howerdel’s baby, but its the melting pot he provided for all these outside voices that always defined their success previously. Furthermore, fourteen years is a really long time, and both Howerdel and Keenan are begging to show their age with this release. The overall tone of the record is one which muggingly begs to be described as “mature”. Pianos have replaced guitars as the primary focus of its the band’s sound, and cracks are beginning to show within Keenan’s previously flawless facade. His voice still has that tone to it, but it’s also definitely starting to show its wear. Rather than his trademark croon, he instead spends the majority of the record in an uncomfortably higher register, which is only accentuated by Howerdel’s harmonies and often seems out of place amid its brooding surrounds.
The best stuff on here is all the material we’ve already heard. “By And Down The River”, which first appeared five years ago (as simply “By And Down”) on the 2013 compilation Three Sixty, is far and above the best track on the record, as well as (unsurprisingly) being the one which feels the most connected to the band’s previous output. Lead single “The Doomed” is another brilliant cut and the only other song that really manages to stand on its own. Otherwise, the record’s individual pickings are pretty scarce. “TalkTalk” manages to titillate somewhat, via briefly touching on the slinky guitar and unbridled rage that made tracks like “Judith”, “Thinking of You” and “Pet” so appealing. Yet, although it forms an integral part of the four-track run from “The Doomed” to “By And Down” that constitutes the single section of the record where it ever feels like it’s building up any form of momentum, such hints of underlying aggression remain few and fleeting. The overall effect is that of a record under whose surface something is bubbling away yet never truly released; instead of offering catharsis, it simply falls victim to its own melancholy.
The album offers a few other intriguing moments. “So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish” is an oddly-upbeat and compelling number, which manages to break up all the doom and gloom while still remaining wholly pessimistic, while “Hourglass” sees the band incorporating some interesting electronic elements into their sound, and might have even made for an effective opener. Otherwise, the record’s later offerings are exceedingly forgettable, with belated closer “Get The Lead Out” coming off as particularly toothless. Similarly, the album’s early moments stand out purely by the disinterest they inspire. The lumbering, piano intro of the opening title track well overstays its welcome—taking a full five minutes to build-up to the anti-climax of “Disillusioned”—before “The Contrarian” further elongates the lack of urgency with its faux-nuanced preaching.
Eat The Elephant is far too competent to be considered a truly “bad” record. However, it’s all just so boring and unremarkable that it would almost have been more interesting if it were, and the fact that it’s coming from some of alternative music’s most accomplished and intriguing musicians only makes it all the more underwhelming. Had this album come hot on the heels of eMotive it would have been understandable. Yet, to have something so bland and pompous serve as A Perfect Circle’s less-than-triumphant comeback after an effective absence of nearly fourteen years only accentuates its shortcomings while also lessening the impact of its few infrequent successes.