Formed by former Fishbone guitar tech, Billy Howerdel, A Perfect Circle consisted of Howerdel, Tool’s frontman, Maynard Keenan who had met Howerdel on tour and became enamored of his songs, bassist Paz Lechantin, Josh Freese on drums and Troy Van Leeuwen sharing duties on guitars. Their first release, Mer De Noms, was a breath of fresh air in the nu-metal miasma of the early 2000’s. Howerdel’s lyrics and production style were a perfect fit for Maynard’s unique vocals. The band, technically a Tool side project for Keenan, was a success.
Three years later, A Perfect Circle returns with a modified lineup and a new album, Thirteenth Step. Paz Lechantin left to join Billy Corgan’s post-Smashing Pumpkins effort, Zwan, and was replaced by former Marilyn Manson bassist, Jeordie Osborne White. Troy Van Leeuwen also departed and former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist, James Iha, took over guitar duties. The resulting album is at once a more powerful yet more melodic follow-up to Mer De Noms.
Howerdel and Maynard team up on the songwriting and the resulting 12 songs are generally more atmospheric than the debut. Make no mistake, there are still tracks that contain the aggressive metal that launched A Perfect Circle into the mainstream; tracks such as “Pet” and “The Outsider”. However, the wall of guitars take a backseat on other tracks such as “Noose” and “Vanishing”, and one can even hear a hint of The Cure on the former track.
The overall theme of the album is, like any good piece of art, up to the interpretations of individual listeners, but it strikes me that the title and the songs themselves are metaphors for recovery from addiction. The first track opens up with a quiet and moody introduction consisting of the echoing tapping of drumsticks and notes from a single, quiet guitar. After the bass line comes into play the guitar fades even more into the background providing a dark atmosphere to the clicking drumsticks, now in the foreground, as Maynard sings:
lie to get what i came for
lie to get just what i need
lie to get what i crave
lie smile to get what's mine.
The track slowly builds in intensity until, more than halfway through the song, the guitars and drums erupt while Maynard growls:
give this to me.
mine, mine, mine.
take what's mine.
This introductory song seems to demonstrate the desperation of any addict in search of another fix. The first single, “Weak and Powerless”, echoes the mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous wherein one must realize that one is powerless against their addiction.
promised I would find little solace
and some peace of mind
whatever just as long as i don't feel
so desperate and ravenous
so weak and powerless over you
We also have this sentiment on the amazing The Noose track, written from the perspective of someone who has survived a loved one’s addiction and subsequent recovery and, upon that loved ones attempt to make amends to those they may have hurt (another AA reference), feels the following:
And not to pull your halo down
Around your neck and tug you off your cloud
But I'm more then just a little curious
How you're planning to go about making your amends
To the dead
To the dead
This is especially poignant as those on a recovery track are oftentimes, early on, haughty in their newfound purity. Compare these early statements with the closure found on the last track, Gravity:
I am surrendering to the gravity and the unknown
catch me heal me lift me back up to the sun
I choose to live
The swirling guitars of Gravity open the song up, lending the entire track a feel of expansiveness and discovery just before Maynard sings “calm these hands before they snare another pill” while a squeal of guitar cuts through the calmness before fading into the bass line. The song eventually fades out with a sense of hope in Maynard’s crooning of “I choose to live, I choose to live”.
Thirteenth Step is certainly open to many other interpretations than the one I’ve presented. I encourage fans of Tool, A Perfect Circle’s earlier work and art-rock in general to pick up a copy. A Perfect Circle’s music and lyrics continue to mature even as the lineup changes, with Howerdel and Maynard leading the creative vision. It is perhaps a testament to Howerdel’s songwriting ability and Maynard’s experience (and his own excellent songwriting skills) that this second album is such a big step forward for A Perfect Circle.
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