If you’re reading this review on your phone, stop right now. Throw your “silicon obsession” against a wall. Technology is bad. Take in the world around you. Resist the stimuli. Exist in the silence. 54 year old white man, Maynard James Keenan, full-time wine enthusiast and occasional singer for less-than-prolific prog-metallers, Tool, genre-hopping, pure Id-channeling art rockers, Puscifer, and cod-mystical-alt-metallers turned well-duh-protest-rockers, A Perfect Circle, said so. FYI, that advice presumably extends to listening to music on your phone. So if you’ve taken leave of your senses and decided to give Eat the Elephant a spin on that thing, you best turn that shit off. Good advice, MJK.

I mean, seriously, a part of me dies every time I see that album cover pop up. Like an advert for an overly ambitious fancy dress retailer put together on photoshop by the owner’s 16 year old nephew, Eat the Elephant’s artwork was really all the warning we needed. It made zero sense out of context as a mere tease for the album that would bear it, but now that A Perfect Circle’s fourth, and least essential album (quite an achievement given that the protest song covers and odd sods album, eMotive, was almost uniformly risible) is out, that artwork somehow makes less sense, except as an indicator of quality. But then again, the cover for Thirteenth Step was pretty terrible too. We can only assume it’s some kind of in-joke at this point. “Let’s see how terrible we can make this look and still have the fanboys lap it up. LULZ.” And before I get a load of hate mail claiming I just don’t get the symbolism, trust me, I get it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s just plain bad. If Eat the Elephant was a concept album about Uncle Fester dismantling the failings and hypocrisy of the USA’s bi-party political system to the strains of melodramatic, Halloween-themed, novelty-goth-pop, then the art would make sense. But Eat the Elephant isn’t that. No, it’s about a normal human being, Maynard James Keenan, dismantling the failings and hypocrisy of the USA’s bi-party political system (and other adventures) to the strains of mostly piano-led, adult-alternative pop-rock. I mean, at least, have the mutant Keenan/Howerdel hybrid chowing down on a pygmy elephant or something...

Anyway… Bands change. Fourteen years is a long fucking time. Trust me, I know. I’m a devoted fan of The Wrens, another band who are highly proficient at keeping people waiting. But, for the majority of its runtime, Eat the Elephant has so little in common with The Thirteenth Step and especially Mer de Noms, that I’m not sure there was any reason for Keenan and Howerdel to release it under the APC moniker. You know, except for the $$$. Opening with its understated title track, Eat the Elephant immediately subverts expectations. Gone are the ostentatious, Disintegration-era Cure-inspired guitar leads, gone is the bombastic rhythm section, gone are Keenan’s full-bodied, impassioned vocals. The production polish is still there of course; those jazzy drums are beautifully recorded, each nuance of that keening voice is captured, and every element is just so. But for a song whose chorus is essentially a rallying cry for action, it’s a remarkably lifeless dirge.

Of the singles that preceded the album’s release, ‘Disillusioned’ was the most engaging musically, even if it was arguably the most lump-headed and infuriatingly patronising lyrically. Nobody is under the illusion that social media is anything but a dopamine-fuelled feedback machine, but MJK will have you believe that he's through the looking glass here people. Sure, I’ll concede that he includes himself within that first-person plural pronoun on the chorus, but Iisteners can sense when they’re being talked down to. And yet, repeated spins reveal the sense for memorable melodic hooks that has always been A Perfect Circle’s greatest strength. The use of space and silence in the song is also notable, especially as it ties in with the lyrical themes, even though the flipside is that the song’s momentum is constantly being stalled. Several songs on Eat the Elephant succumb to a similar fate. Verses build tension, but a proportionate release is often withheld or unnecessarily delayed. ‘The Doomed’ rides in on an urgent bassline, but follows a diversion down a timpani-and-piano breakdown for a few bars before finally launching into the first section of the album that could be interpreted as metal, however loosely. But that galloping jolt of adrenaline lasts only a matter of seconds before MJK finds himself whispering over some glockenspiel. Rinse and repeat. Besides making its laboured point about how the virtuous and underprivileged are ignored under the new social order, ‘The Doomed’ makes a far far stronger case for banning the use of timpanis in rock songs.

Still, at least it’s not as overblown as ‘So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish,’ strong contender for the title of worst song in the APC catalogue. Described by Keenan as their equivalent of ‘It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),’ ‘So Long’ sorely lacks any of that classic song’s wit and charm, whilst also making a cynical grab for relevance with shout outs to fallen cultural icons like Bowie, Prince and Carrie Fisher; their deaths apparently serving as harbingers for a nuclear apocalypse that Keenan welcomes with a ticker-tape parade and “hip hip hoorays.” Sonically, it’s a car crash of every populist music signifier imaginable (with those fucking timpanis chucked in for good measure). Sure, it’s meant ironically, but with nothing else to redeem it, the song becomes a joke that isn’t even funny the first time you hear it. Keenan has made a song about welcoming civilisation-ending catastrophe before on Tool’s 1996 album, Ænima. Inspired by Bill Hicks, that song positively dripped with the misanthropic disgust that was the stand-up legend’s trademark. ‘So Long’ is just so obvious with its targets (plastic surgery? really?) that, in the end, it just feels uninspired and toothless. And everyone knows you need teeth to successfully eat an elephant.

Keenan’s take on the governmental and Christian Right response to gun violence (specifically the ineffectuality of thoughts and prayers) sounds like he watched the news and jotted down what he saw written on a series of protest signs. Granted, no right-minded liberal would take issue with the sentiment or the message, but it’s the manner with which it’s conveyed that will cause consternation. Keenan addresses every hot button issue as if he were allergic to the very notion of nuance and subtlety. “Try walkin' your talk or get the fuck out of my way,” he growls in the song’s final moments, a rare moment of proportionate (albeit somewhat silly-sounding) anger on a protest album that is often mellow and meditative when it should be getting fired up. It’s hard to believe that this is the same band that wrote ‘Judith,’ the song which had Keenan yell “fuck your God” with such palpable passion that you could swear you could feel the spit speckle your skin, and (interesting fact) was at one time my favourite song to do the vocals on in Guitar Hero. ‘The Contrarian,’ ostensibly about Donald Trump (“Hello, he lies…”) lets him get off fairly lightly. Sure, Keenan describes him as having a core as black as pitch and being an advocate for no one, but my biggest takeaway from the song is that Keenan pronounces the word ‘magician’ as if it has four syllables. Why? He does the same thing on ‘De-li-ci-ous,’ and it’s oddly distracting. More so than on previous releases, Keenan’s voice, though as immaculately controlled and velvety as ever, has a tendency towards overly affected enunciation, wherein vowels and consonants are pronounced differently than they ought to be, meaning that he ends up “searching your ass for a trace of humility" on the otherwise fairly pleasant ‘By and Down the River’ (a re-recording of a song previously released on their 360 live album).

In fact, the middle section of ‘By and Down the River’ and ‘Delicious’ represent the most straightforward, most plainly enjoyable tracks on here. Not coincidentally, both foreground Howerdel’s guitar playing. Much has been made of the addition of on-and-off-and-on again Smashing Pumpkin, James Iha, to the APC lineup, but to all intents and purposes, the band is composed principally of Keenan and Howerdel, with the latter performing virtually all instrumental parts. Maybe they let him tune the guitars between takes. Poor Iha, always at the mercy of tyrannical, bald Billys.

The problem with A Perfect Circle now is that Keenan and Howerdel basically follow whatever creative whims that grab them. After a particularly soporific instrumental track, the album enters its most experimental phase, with unsurprisingly scattershot and lacklustre results. Keenan pumps his voice through a Daft Punk vocoder on ‘Hourglass,’ which is a real headscratcher of a track that has to be heard to be believed (not in a good way). ‘Feathers’ features Howerdel’s soaring guitar heroics, but is fairly indistinguishable from much of what has come before, whilst closer ‘Get the Lead Out’ is a bizarre mish-mash of plucked strings, turntable-scratching, and a booming drum pattern, whilst Keenan listlessly speak-sings about how there’s no time to waste dawdling, no time for mollycoddling, no time for “chit chat chit chat,” because there’s work to be done correcting the ills he’s spent the best part of an hour laying out for you. You have to wonder about the logic behind making a song about the urgency of the now that spends six and a half minutes getting precisely nowhere. Howerdel and Keenan waited a long time to deliver their state of the nation address. It’s a shame to think that the time that was devoted to it has been wasted, and could have been better spent making, I don’t know, a new Tool album maybe.