A Perfect Circle's Hard Rock Against Hard Times

Maynard James Keenan’s second-most-influential band is back after 14 years to elegantly vent about iPhones and plastic surgery.

The members of A Perfect Circle, including Maynard James Keenan (left)

Something long buried in me shivered when I first listened to “TalkTalk” off A Perfect Circle’s new album, Eat the Elephant. “Get the fuck out of my way,” Maynard James Keenan shouts, seeming to expel a mouthful of ashes, stretching the final syllable so that it merges with the jet-roar guitar tone below. The emotion expressed felt more complex than rage; the way it was rendered as slow-motion eruption carried mysterious power. What was I hearing?

“There’s bass, guitar, drums, and a guy singing and then sometimes screaming,” Keenan said in a phone interview after I tried to articulate this reaction. “I guess that’s a cliché for me. If you responded to those moments of mine in previous incarnations over the years, I suppose you’re going to have that sense memory.”

Well then. He has a point, deflating as it may be. The 54-year-old Keenan is a legend of hard rock, but his most famous band, the gnostic metal act Tool, hasn’t put out an album since 2006. The softer-but-still-tough, elegantly mournful A Perfect Circle last released something new in 2004. (His loopy other band, Puscifer, has been more active since then.) So it’s true that simple nostalgia might make “TalkTalk” land potently for certain listeners, especially those who basically lived their sophomore years of high school in Keenan’s bands’ merchandise (cough).

Yet A Perfect Circle returns in a moment that might seem well-suited for such nostalgia. Ouroboros-like critical discourses over whether rock is “dead” as a truly popular musical form have begun to morph fruitfully as it’s become clear how deeply rock and roll is ingrained in the DNA of emerging hip-hop. The ’90s and early-2000s angsty wave that Keenan was a part of—he always stood between and outside of grunge, alternative, and nu metal—has become a newly cool touchstone. Just last week, Kid Cudi’s new single sampled the Smashing Pumpkins. Lil Peep sounded like Tool at times. There well could be a renewed appetite for Keenan’s mannered hisses and bellows.

Eat the Elephant doesn’t concern itself with the modern musical landscape, though the broader social one does figure in. The album arrived with a cheeky press release pretending that the band’s co-leader, multi-instrumentalist Billy Howerdel, had awoken from a 14-year freeze to find that “every entitled idiot with an iPhone now has the power to immediately express their uninformed mean-spirited opinions under the banner of ‘journalism.’” The get off my lawn element of that gag can be heard throughout the album, and when I spoke with Keenan he repeatedly steered his answers back toward what he calls “the age of entitlement.” But the didacticism of Eat the Elephant is often, thankfully, outshone by the music’s well-honed sense of expansiveness, beauty, and rage.

On the title-track opener, Keenan appears to engage with the question of how to approach a daunting task such as resuming a band’s recording career after more than a decade of hiatus. He ends up with the same advice that “creatives” of all sort are accustomed to taking: “Just take the bite / Just go all in.” Yet the song sounds like the result of care and consideration, not forced free-writing. Contemplative piano eerily blends with insistent, twittery drums, and the grain of Keenan’s singing voice get showcased in high-def. The patience with which the song is executed—there’s no big buildup—telegraphs that what’s ahead won’t chase the pop-rock concision of the band’s still-great hits Judith” and “3 Libras.”

Patience is also the watchword on “Disillusioned.” A bittersweetly rollicking opening—anchored by a high-pitched chant of “dopamine, dopamine”—melts into a quiet passage that’s surprisingly moving, making for a two-minute tangent that earns its place. The song’s video isn’t as deftly finessed, depicting a member of a cell-phone-addicted cult escaping into nature. I asked Keenan whether he crafts this kind of critique with an awareness of how hoary it can seem. “As an artist, as much as we might want to trick ourselves into thinking we’re talking to somebody else, we’re talking about ourselves,” he replied. “It’s not a judgment of others. It’s a call to yourself to pull your head out of your ass.”

He’s no less subtle on the rhythmically tricky swirl of “TalkTalk,” which denounces religious types who respond to the world’s horrors with “thoughts and prayers,” which, he sings, are “adorable, like cake in a crisis.” The aforementioned climaxes of “Get the fuck out of my way” are potent enough to make the song transcend the feeling of a lecture, and it helps that Keenan has been working this same theme of anti-hypocrisy for decades. He does, for what it’s worth, think society is even more screwed now than he did back in the ’90s when he merrily envisioned Los Angeles swept away in a flood. “There’s a lot of people talking and not doing,” he said. “Even if they’re doing, they’re convinced that posting on a Facebook page is ‘doing.’ That’s not fucking doing!”

Elsewhere, his political grouchiness does spoil the fun, especially when paired with musical gimmicks. “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish” tuts about plastic surgery, shouts out some recently dead celebs, and cheers the apocalypse over a tune so upbeat it has to be sarcastic. It’s a cynical Walk the Moon song: No thanks. Later, “Hourglass” employs the term Republicrat, which is ill-advised in any context but especially amid NFL-commercial bluster and sci-fi voice effects. It comes off like he’s describing a new tribe of Terminator, dedicated to defending Wall Street. His fetish for multisyllabics plays better when leavened with drier wit, as is the case on the Cure-flecked “Delicious”: “How inconvenient, unexpected, and harrowing for you, as consequences tend to be.”

Once upon a time, emotionally dark and somewhat experimental guitar bands built their fanbases in sight of the mainstream, which A Perfect Circle did in its early 2000s run. But now there’s no such lane, and this better-than-it-had-to-be album isn’t likely to carve one, though Elephant could end up sampled by Lil Uzi Vert. Keenan ascribes the ebb of bands like his to the rise of streaming, which he thinks devalues the labor it takes to record analogue music. But he also recognizes how unlikely it would be for him, who spends more time at his Arizona winery than in rehearsal now, to be received as edgy any longer.

With hard rock, before, “there’s danger—it makes my parents nervous,” he said. “But when you watch Ozzy Osbourne stumbling around in his kitchen picking up dog poop on The Osbournes, well that scary part is gone, isn’t it? Rock, we’ve almost outgrown it as a culture. There are other things that are dangerous.”