Maynard Keenan: winemaker, Brazilian jiujitsu enthusiast, creator of numerous Tool songs longer than some hardcore albums–these are pastimes that require far more patience than the average man can muster. One shouldn’t hold it against the not-so-average men who don’t have the time, money and self-selective personality traits to see this stuff to fruition. But in Maynard’s view, that’s exactly what’s wrong with you damn kids – failing to recognize the irony of criticizing our “silicon obsession” in an online publication called Stuff, Keenan complains that unprecedented access to information hasn’t empowered marginalized communities, but rather “fostered this generation of novice experts who have the power to open their mouths but haven’t actually put the work into knowing what they’re talking about.”
With the same operatic heft he used to request the supernatural flushing of California into the Pacific Ocean, the first single from A Perfect Circle’s Eat the Elephant essentially boils down the American decline to “it’s cuz you be on that phone.” Look, I was hoping that this phrase would be retired from music criticism in 2018, but when someone in their mid-’50s writes a song about the Yelp reviews of his winery, how can you pass up the chance to use “old man yells at Cloud” so literally?
There’s plenty about Eat the Elephant that allowed it to go neck-and-neck with J. Cole’s KOD, the To Pimp a Butterfly of concern trolling, for the title of 4/20’s greatest pop culture buzzkill: the DeviantArt-esque cover shot, front loading with its most ponderous piano pounding, the fact that it clearly dropped on 4/20 to make some kind of point. But credit where it’s due: by picking up exactly where they left off 14 years removed from their last studio album, Eat the Elephant is proof that Maynard was as good as his word when it comes to playing the long game.
In 2004, eMOTIVe smacked of classic contract obligation, a collection of “politically minded” covers with the curatorial range of a high school Battle of the Bands: “Imagine,” “What’s Going On?” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” among them. Though most of it underwent pretty radical musical transformations, erring towards the kind of self-serious, superhero bombast that recalled Christopher Nolan’s Batman as much as it did A Perfect Circle, eMOTIVe still felt purposefully vague about its intent, letting the originals do the ideological weightlifting. America was mired in a war that already felt endless and the two major political parties offered candidates that were either psychedelically incompetent or thunderously uninspiring: Keenan considered the project an expression of “anti-political apathy,” which could be read in two ways in 2004 and both felt appropriate.
But in times that at least feel more urgent, this kind of exculpatory cynicism feels ultimately hollow and self-interested — “Faith without works is just talk,” Keenan seethes, yet Eat the Elephant is devoid of calls to action, making a sword and shield out of its South Park moral agnosticism, attacking our society’s most obvious hypocrisies without having to express what he actually believes besides “gotta hate both sides.” It’s not that A Perfect Circle lack answers, but questions that couldn’t be skimmed from a 10th grade civics class, making Eat the Elephant an intellectual covers album to the same degree that eMOTIVe was a musical one – kinda fucked up how our elected officials think “thoughts and prayers” are a proper substitute for gun control, right? Man, maybe those religious wingnuts touting prosperity gospel are the ones using Jesus’ name in vain? Looks like those clowns in Congress did it again, right?
If it seems like we’re dwelling on the philosophical underpinnings of Eat the Elephant too much, its smug, unexplored sense of intellectual superiority is pretty much all it has to offer. Musically, it’s an hourlong misallocation of the considerable resources that made a nu-metal minor classic out of 2000’s Mer de Noms. Maynard can only hope his wine ages as gracefully as his own vocals, and while his stentorian croon can add gravitas to even the flimsiest argument, that’s also the most glaring flaw of Eat the Elephant. At all times, the discrepancy between the assumed weight of his lyrics and their negligible substance is impossible to ignore; God help those who had to learn about Pavlov and the Pied Piper from A Perfect Circle in 2018. The inventive textures of James Iha and guitar-tech-to-the-stars Billy Howerdel are mostly relegated to the fringe, but Dave Sardy’s reliably shellacked production serves as a reminder that Eat the Elephant isn’t a philosophical treatise; rather, it’s only real requirement is to make a more coherent and memorable alt-rock state of the union address than Thirty Seconds to Mars.
It’s hard to say whether A Perfect Circle even clear this bar; the most memorable track lyrically rehashes “Aenima” (“we wasted every second dime on diets, lawyers, shrinks and apps”) while mocking the performative mourning of Twitter and quoting A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s as intellectually jumbled as the mono-genre alt-rock that “So Long and Thanks For All the Fish” is supposed to mock–a decent parody of Jared Leto, but like most of Eat the Elephant, a better parody of Maynard Keenan.