I was first introduced to A Perfect Circle through their cover album Emotive, which I borrowed from a friend. Thankfully I did not pay one cent for it, as it possesses the same musical integrity as urinating in a Pepsi bottle and throwing it at a basement wall. However, after hearing singles The Outsider and Judith I became more familiar with the band in their glory days and I was compelled to purchase their first two albums. Their second effort, Thirteenth Step, would go on to become one of my favourite albums of all time, and one of few that I could listen to for years on end without tiring.
At first I was thrown a little by the title, which seemed like one of the generic meaningless titles assigned to alt-rock albums at random. However, once I caught on to the addiction and recovery concept that runs through the album, I understood the title for what it means. The songs to follow are all excellent and all contribute to the central story or meaning of the album. Although I am not a die-hard fan of A Perfect Circle and do not know the exact stories behind many of Maynard's lyrics, I could draw enough from them that I gained a deep appreciation for the bands songwriting.
A Perfect Circle was (is?):
Maynard James Keenan- Lead Vocals
Billy Howerdel- Guitar and Vocals
James Iha- Guitar
Jeordie White- Bass
Josh Freese- Drums
The first stage of alcoholism is denail, and that seems to be what we're greeted with on the opening track, THE PACKAGE. Over in 7 minutes in length, its the album's longest and almost overstays its welcome. The song brings in with light guitar and a rim beat, then Jeordie enters with a smooth bass line. Maynards vocals are dark and hollow, "Eye on what I'm after, I don't need another friend". Then, halfway through the song the guitar cuts into a heavy riff as Maynard utters "Mine!" under the music. A powerful start to an equally epic album.
Next comes the huge radio single WEAK AND POWERLESS, which does kind of live up to its name. The song is clearly about addiction, in which the narrator now admits to their problem and how it affects them. Not one of the abums strongest songs, its never really captivated my interest in the same way as most other tracks. However, although not very dynamic or powerful, it still conveys a bleakness that makes it a worthwhile track, and makes for an obvious single. I only really feel the need to skip it when desperate to hear the next track, likely my favourite on the album.
THE NOOSE always seemed out of place to me, such a strong and impactful track would have done well as the album's closer. The song seems to be written about someone who has recovered from an addiction or illness, but then becomes overly righteous. I like dedicating it to my ex-anorexic girlfriend who recently left me. The song has an almost ambient feel at the beginning, with a soft piano chord which is joined by light but innovative drums, guitar, bass and vocals. Much like The Package, it builds and climaxes near the end of the track, however the end result is a beautiful cascade of some of the most emotionally powerful strings I've ever heard. Maynard's final line, "Your halo's slipping down to choke you now" echoes long after the song to haunt the listener for hours to folow.
Then comes BLUE, another radio single. This song has a little more 'pop appeal' to it with a more upbeat guitar and vocals. However, it is still an excellent track and a nice break from some of the bleakness found on the album. The song sounds like an ex-girlfriend revenge fantasy, particularily the chorus in which Maynard sings about her 'turning blue', possibly from strangulation? An enjoyable, livelier track.
VANISHING took a little while to grow on me, as it isn't a vocally driven track nor does it have solic catchy instrumentals. However, the song is enjoyable for its raw power and emotion. The music sounds like a dark ambience laced with guitar and steady ride cymbal. I'm not sure what to make about deeper lyrical meanings, so I won't try. Next we have A STRANGER, an acoustic song with Maynard's superb singing cast under the spotlight. The song is about the narrator's/Maynard's views on God and how he doesn't feel that God cares about him or is relevant to his life (a sentiment that I have found in several addicts). The single guitar notes are met with strings and light strummming that layer the song nicely. Got to respect any band that can make a drum-free song still sound somewhat like it has balls.
And enter THE OUTSIDER, the song that truly drew me towards this band. One of their angrier songs, it most defenitly is of the anti-ex-girlfriend theme. The song is about a girl described by Maynard as a 'narcissistic drama queen' whose self destructive nature damages those around her. The music stays true to the bands alt-rock format, the guitar only really thickens on the second verse for a few moments. Much of the volume is conveyed through Josh's creative yet consistent drumwork. However, the lyrics are bitter and vitriolic from start to finish, making for a dark driving song that sounds great when up late at night.
Then we come to the first of two semi-instrumentals; CRIMES is dismissed by many as pure filler. However, the throbbing drum beat and soft background guitar makes for an enjoyable track musically. While the only words are Maynard's counting in the background, the light effect paints a colourful result of a person who has lost all respect for society and laws.
The next one really caught me off guard at first. A cover track done originally by the band Failure, THE NURSE WHO LOVED ME is a mellow, disney like tune that utilizes very little instrumentals, no drums and choir-like bakcup vocals. The happy yet childlike song is almost laughable at times, however it works well ironically as the 'nurse' being pined over is clearly a metaphor for a drug, representing the narrator's need-driven ambitions.
After the last track closes on an airy, peaceful note, PET slaps the listener in the face with its heavy guitars, bass and drums. The albums loudest and perhaps moodiest, the lyrics take a political swing, which is vastly different from the rest of the album. "Don't fret precious I'm here", sings Maynard, "Step away from the window. Go back to sleep." On the surface we hear a father consoling his son and his nightime fears, but this is but a metaphor for the American government and its way of assuring the blind American citizen that they can be trusted with their lives. Satirical rock at its finest, with some catchy and edgy guitars to boot. Next comes LULLABY, another largely instrumental track which serves as almost an outro to Pet. The music is even simpler this time, with a female voice singing "Na-na-na-na-na-na' in the background over faint drumming. While not a stand out track in itself by any means, it works well as an aftertought to Pet and as a way to set up the listener for the finale.
GRAVITY is one of the most beautifully optimistic tracks ever the conclude a concept album. Musically, it recalls The Package, which brings the album around to a full circle (no pun intended). However, the vocals on the chorus are the best on the album, shining brighty across the musical landscape; "Catch me, heal me, lift me up to the sun, I choose to live". The song has an uplifting feel despite the title, and lets the listener know that everything turns out well in the end. I truly believe that this song could prevent half of all suicides if only played at the right moment.
The thirteenth step as we know it, and as this album illustrates, is to love onself. The theme of self embrace and acceptance echoes through this album as resoundly as any instrument, and makes it one of the most beatiful anf powerful works of art to ever make it onto a disc. I would recommend this album to anyone who has ever had a rough day, or just anyone with a throurough enjoyment of powerfully transcendant music.
Stand-out Tracks: The Noose, The Outsider, Pet, Gravity