A Perfect Circle hasn’t had a new album for 14 years, despite promising one for the last ten. Between other projects and creative squabbles, it felt like the super group might be finished until a steady trickle of singles started showing up ahead of the release. What those singles hinted at was a very different kind of album.
It’s hard to write about Eat the Elephant without leaning on words like “matured” and “unexpected.’ A Perfect Circle has always been the gentler and more polished of vocalist Maynard James Keenan’s cavalcade of bands. And Eat the Elephant still fits that description, but it also distinguishes itself in tone. It’s slower and softer, subdued and experimental. It’s heavy on despair and light on anger.
It can’t be mere coincidence that the single “TalkTalk” shares its name with a British art rock band whose albums, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, bears much in common with A Perfect Circle’s new direction. Jazzy rhythms, cowed vocals and the use of silence as an instrument are all shared hallmarks between the two. The first three tracks of Eat the Elephant form a minimalist trilogy of quiet desperation that could almost live on a Talk Talk album.
“The Doomed” and “By and Down the River” are the most familiar tracks. “The Doomed” is the only song to bring out the fiery and raspy growls you might expect from Keenan, although its marching rhythm and foreboding fanfare still maintain a stillness that’s of a piece with the rest of Eat the Elephant. Elsewhere Keenan experiments with his vocal register, utilizing whispered falsettos that are simultaneously serene, intense and dripping with anxiety. These strained moments form the soul of the album. However, his electronic dabblings are easily the album’s low point. Luckily there are only two instances, “Hourglass” and “Get the Lead Out,” and both toward the end of the album, but the effect is jarring. This delicate, morose album is suddenly preempted by a trip hop dance party.
A Perfect Circle starts strong but loses its momentum at the end, as if the band got cold feet about going the moody/low key route and tried to overcompensate. But the final tally is still favorable, offering: two cringey tracks, two throw away tracks and eight really solid, surprising songs. Eat the Elephant comes frustratingly close to being a masterpiece, and while it falls short of that mark, there’s still plenty of material here to keep fans happy until Tool gets off its laurels.