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!”