I have been a pretty big Tool fan for at least 25 years, so when I heard, some 20 years ago, that Maynard James Keenan would be providing the vocals for a new project called A Perfect Circle, I was pretty excited. It had already been several years since Ænima was released, and though Lateralus was on the horizon, I don’t think we knew that yet.
A Perfect Circle, though, at least the beginning, was Billy Howerdel’s project. Maynard came on board, in light of their friendship with one another, but I knew from the beginning that it was a mistake to think it was Maynard’s band. That didn’t matter, though, because the music was great.
I managed to get my hands on a couple of tracks before Mer de Noms was released (I think maybe through Napster?), and I saw the band open for Nine Inch Nails on the tour for The Fragile before their first album had even come out.
Maynard wore a long wig, and I think they played the whole album—Mer de Noms is only a little over 40 minutes long, after all. Then the album came out the following month. I bought it right away and starting listening to it on repeat.
The most striking thing to me at this point is how different Maynard’s projects sound from one another. Tool is Tool, of course. Puscifer seems to give him some outlet for his own ideas and has its own distinct sound, which I love. And A Perfect Circle seems totally defined to me as a band of its own. Perhaps it is Howerdel’s influence.
It is odd to say, but in a certain way I feel like it is with their most recent album—Eat the Elephant—that A Perfect Circle truly came into their own. All accounts are that Maynard was already influencing Thirteenth Step more than he had Mer de Noms, but the band now feels like a true collaboration.
Regardless, I’ve pulled from their whole discography to put forward to you my Perfect Ten songs from A Perfect Circle. I don’t mean to demean anything that didn’t make the list. I approached this task largely around the thought of trying to put together an album (or a playlist). But if you want to talk about what you’d add and replace, or what their 10 best songs are, I’m all for it!
Track 1: “Orestes”
“Orestes” embodies the sound of Mer de Noms. It is darkly melodic, and its whole sound just exemplifies early A Perfect Circle. I am pretty sure that Billy Howerdel wrote this one fairly completely before Maynard came on with the band, but I can’t seem to find definite confirmation of that.
There is this, which is labeled as a demo on YouTube, but then there is also a commenter calling that into question. For that it’s worth, I recall hearing some demos back around 2000, and have always been under the impression that Howerdel basically had a draft of the whole of Mer de Noms before Maynard joined the band, but I can’t seem to find anything to confirm my 20-year-old memories of all of this.
Regardless, “Orestes” stands out as a great song. The title refers to a figure from Greek mythology, who killed his mother amongst other things, and the lyrics follow that theme. But it’s not necessarily about killing your mother; it’s about cutting those ties to family that can hold you back from doing the right thing, or what you want to do. It’s a metaphor—for a missing moment, if you will.
Track 2: “Blue”
I have to admit that when Thirteenth Step came out, it didn’t immediately grab me. I thought it was fine, but in a certain way it just struck me as more songs. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but perhaps the way that Tool seemed to be constantly innovating colored my perception.
As I returned to the album later, though, I began to move away from this thought that A Perfect Circle was “Tool light”—they aren’t and never have been. For one thing, as I’ve already noted, Billy Howerdel has been the main creative force behind APC, particularly in the beginning. My understanding is that Maynard’s influence grew with their second album (and beyond), but I think Howerdel should get the credit for a throughline to their tone and style.
It’s not as heavy as Tool, nor as complex, but if we can leave that comparison behind, what we find with A Perfect Circle is a band that has their own sound, which is distinct from pretty much anything else out there (Maynard’s vocals aside). It is more darkly melodic than heavy. The guitar tends to ring clear, as opposed to being laden with distortion. And the rhythms, while not simple, do not tend to be overly complicated either. The chord progressions are distinctive, and if you want to focus on Maynard, it’s easy to see how he has adapted his vocals to the music that surrounds them.
All of this is on display in “Blue,” which is one of the first songs that really struck me from Thirteenth Step. The lyrics get at a certain structure of denial. “Close my eyes just to look at you” clearly plays on two different senses of vision: one literal, the other metaphorical. Or perhaps that is the wrong word. What do I see when I look at you? You’re turning blue. Is that such a lovely color for you, or are you dying?
Track 3: “The Doomed”
With Eat the Elephant, A Perfect Circle took a definite turn into social commentary. Or, well, I mean, it’s not that there was nothing to their music that was political before (see all of the covers on eMOTIVe), and certainly any number of songs they’ve written over the years could be connected to social issues in some way, but things became pretty direct on Eat the Elephant, and I’m here for it.
“The Doomed” is about a shifting ethos in our society (or perhaps the world) with regards to Christianity in particular. Now, Maynard has variously excoriated Christianity over the years in his lyrics, from Tool’s early “Opiate” to “Judith” on A Perfect Circle’s Mer de Noms, to name just a couple of examples. But he has not always been so harsh in recent years, and his position on Eat the Elephant seems more like a critique of those claiming to be Christian from within the broad perspective of a Christian morality than it does a hatred coming from the outside. In this way, “The Doomed” feels far more mature to me than does “Judith.”
At the same time, “The Doomed” is vicious. It calls out those who claim Christianity while pointing out how much they have veered into the very opposite. It’s like an inverted Sermon on the Mount.
Doomed are the poor
Doomed are the peaceful
Doomed are the meek
Doomed are the merciful
For the word is now death
And the word is now without light
The new beatitude:
“F*ck the doomed, you’re on your own”
Track 4: “The Noose”
“The Noose” is one of A Perfect Circle’s mellower tracks. Of course, one could describe any number of APC songs, going back to the beginning, in this sort of way, but even the guitar on “The Noose” is more ambient than it is driving a melody. Maynard’s vocals are allowed to come to the fore here and sort of soar over the instrumentals.
And the lyrics are powerful.
And not to pull your halo down
Around your neck and tug you off your cloud
But I’m more than just a little curious
How you’re planning to go about making your amends
To the dead
To the dead
Recall the deeds as if they’re all
Someone else’s atrocious stories
Now you stand reborn before us all
So glad to see you well
On the one hand, this plays on a personal level. It’s like the addict in recovery who has become self-righteous, like they’ve forgotten their own struggle and the ways they harmed others in the past. They’ve moved beyond it all to the extent that they almost view their past self as someone else. This is, I think, somewhat antithetical to the spirit of recovery, but I have also known people like this. And I by no means think “The Noose” intends to call out recovering addicts in general—just that particular stripe who seem to feel like they have fully carried out the 12 steps and moved beyond them. What is the 13th step?
The term is used to refer to the actions of someone who has been in recovery for some time pursuing a sexual relationship with someone new to the process. This is generally viewed negatively, and I think it fits with a lot of what A Perfect Circle is up to on the album. At the same time, though, perhaps the phrase should call to mind the question of learning to have healthy relationships with others.
Regardless, the thrust of “The Noose” is that you can’t fully escape your past. You can’t make amends to the dead. This thing is always going to linger. But that seems to already be there in the notion that one is only ever a recovering and not a recovered addict…
But I’ve also had a tendency for quite a while to hear “The Noose” more on the level of social critique. In particular, it makes me think of George W. Bush. I suppose I’ll just leave that there as something for you to think about as opposed to trying to explain myself. But it strikes me how often Maynard’s lyrics can, through a certain level of abstraction, connect and resonate with things beyond what was originally intended.
Track 5: “Disillusioned”
That said, a lot of the lyrics on Eat the Elephant (particularly for the tracks I’ve chosen) feel a bit more straightforward, and that’s OK. “Disillusioned,” for example, is pretty clearly about our obsession with cellphones, and how they can disconnect us from one another.
Time to put the silicon obsession down
Take a look around, find a way in the silence
Lie supine away with your back to the ground
Dis- and re-connect to the resonance now
You were never an island
As a social critique, it is almost too easy, and the video for the song feels a bit too on the nose, but there is something a bit deeper that we get here from A Perfect Circle than your standard “I’m starting to think smartphones are actually making us less connected” kind of trope.
There is the thought here that something of our uniqueness gets lost as we get caught in loops of desire determined by others. Rather than being a unique voice among the many, we’ve been overrun by an animal desire for bright lights and pretty colors, or that flickering notification.
The interesting thing is the suggestion that this stems from becoming disillusioned. What are we disappointed in if not, fundamentally, each other? But does social media lay bare our truest selves, or flatten them? Do we interact with the other as the unique voice that they are, or pigeon-hole them into the nearest available box where we can put their views?
Track 6: “Magdalena”
I’ve mostly chosen this song for the way it drives and climaxes. I love a song that climaxes. Of course, “Magdalena” also seems to be about a stripper, so that’s fitting. At the same time, though, it brings together the sacred and the profane. She’s an earthly goddess for whom I’d sell my soul a dollar at a time.
The title of the song probably plays on Mary Magdalene, and the way in which she has historically been conflated with another Mary to create the idea that she was a prostitute. Though at the same time, I like the idea that Jesus hung out with prostitutes, and I think there is some other scriptural support for that? Regardless, “Magdalena” brings together those tropes of the Madonna and the Whore, and leads us to think about worship at the altar of the stripper pole. Because what else is going on there, if not a certain kind of worship? And why should we not worship the earthly goddess?
But basically I just think this song rocks.
Track 7: “So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish”
First of all, I find the title of this song to be hilarious. For one thing, it’s a Douglas Adams reference —it was the last message of the dolphins before they left the planet, you see. Of course, we misinterpreted it.
But I also feel here another reference to Jesus, perhaps because of how those have run through my Perfect Ten here more than anything else, but I have to wonder if even Adams had something like this in mind when he made this joke about dolphins. You know, the thing about Jesus feeding a multitude with five loaves of bread and two fish? Maybe I’m stretching.
“So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish” seems to be much more about that kind of apocalyptic feeling, especially when we put the video into the mix. But the song is also an anthem. It pays tribute to a number of figures who have died…though I guess now that I think about it they are like the dolphins who were trying to warn us?
Track 8: “What’s Going On”
When A Perfect Circle released eMOTIVe in 2004, I have to admit the album didn’t do a lot for me. Most of the covers fell a bit flat to me, or only had that kind of novelty value that a cover song can have. They are rarely better than the original, after all, and often don’t even stand up to it, which can leave you wondering why the band even bothered.
The cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is not like that for me, however. It may not be as good as the original, but it is meaningfully different in a way that does not seem at all gimmicky. Gaye’s song is a classic, but can almost feel so smooth it’s not clear if the lyrics get through. Do people listen to lyrics? A Perfect Circle makes you do so with the way they break down the song and give us this stark version of it.
Gaye’s version remains almost uplifting despite its material; A Perfect Circle’s version is nigh depressing. And I think that’s warranted. As we see similar circumstances in today’s world to those that inspired Gaye in the first place, it is hard to feel hope about where things are going. And I’d hazard to say that’s even more the case in 2020 than it was in 2004.
Track 9: “TalkTalk”
“TalkTalk” has always struck me as pretty clearly being about gun violence in the U.S. Constantly we hear this bit about thoughts and prayers, and I find it very cathartic to hear Maynard sing that this is “adorable…like cake in a crisis.”
But we’re bleeding out.
From the perspective of 2020, I could also see this being about coronavirus, or any number of other problems we face as human beings. And I think that’s part of what I love so much about all of Maynard’s lyrics, across projects. Even when they seem to be clearly about one thing, he writes them in a way where they can start to feel like they are about other things.
Regardless, “TalkTalk” cuts to the bone in calling out those who claim to care about a problem but only pay it lip service. And it brings back some of that Maynard anger in the vocals that it’s been easy to miss in recent years.
Track 10: “3 Libras”
It only seems right to go back to Mer de Noms to close this out. It’s a brilliant album, and I could have put pretty much any track on here. But “3 Libras” might be my favorite. The song doesn’t let up, it builds, and it ends with a repeated refrain you can hardly avoid singing along with.
A lot of songs on Mer de Noms seem to deal with relationship dynamics. It may even be that all of them do. But “3 Libras” has always hit me right in the heart of something I identify with.
‘Cause I threw you the obvious
To see what occurs behind
The eyes of a fallen angel
Eyes of a tragedy, oh well
Oh well, apparently nothing
Apparently nothing, at all
You don’t, you don’t, you don’t see me
You don’t, you don’t, you don’t see me
You don’t, you don’t, you don’t see me
You don’t, you don’t, you don’t see me
You don’t see me
You don’t, you don’t, you don’t see me, at all
Those lyrics might seem too harsh, and maybe they are too harsh, but the perspective is important, as is the repeated “You don’t see me” which I almost didn’t include. Because it’s not about blaming some broken person; it’s about loving that broken person. It’s about loving a person who can’t get beyond themselves to love you back. And maybe there are reasons for that. Maybe it is all forgivable, or should be. But the fact remains that they don’t see you, or can’t.
I thought about going into a long personal story here, but I’ll spare you. Either you connect to this or you don’t. Either you’ve had this experience, or you haven’t.
But even if you haven’t, I hope you can see how “3 Libras” is one of A Perfect Circle’s best songs. Even just instrumentally, it really carries you through and you’re probably going to be surprised it’s over and listen to it again.
So that’s my APC AP10. What did I miss and what would you remove? Let me know in the comments!