Album Review : A Perfect Circle - Mer de Noms (2000)
Maynard James Keenan is a renowned perfectionist. He doesn't make music for the sake of making music and racking profits. He can drop from the face of the Earth for years and do other stuff like studying Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or starting a vineyard in Arizona, because the guy is just addicted to excellence like that. He'll always find something to be awesome at. Fans were understandably excited when Keenan's other band A Perfect Circle announced the release of a new album called Eat the Elephant on 4/20. Should I be excited about this? Is A Perfect Circle more than Maynard James Keenan's other band?
I went back to Mer de Noms, where it all started, to figure it out.
The first thing you need to understand in order to appreciate A Perfect Circle is that it's a collaboration between Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel, who was Tool's guitar technician at the time. So, it'll feel familiar to Tool listeners, especially in terms of its melancholic tone, but it's considerably more accessible than the beefy prog rock we all know and love Tool for. Mer de Noms is more bare and melodic without necessarily being pandering or radio-friendly. It's a complex and elaborate form of alternative rock, something that was almost washed out of existence in the early 2000s.
Seven of the twelve songs on Mer de Noms are named after people. Some of them are people Maynard James Keenan used to know, like his mother Judith and sometimes it refers to high-concept shit, like for the song Rose. The rose is a symbol of vulnerability and victimhood, which he uses to transcend with the verb rise, which symbolizes triumph over the past. Maynard affirms this in the chorus, with the liberating: I am/I will/So no longer/Will I lay down/Play dead/Play your doe. The beautiful, atmospheric Orestes is an allusion to a Greek myth of a son avenging his father's murder, but is really discussing a troubled mother-son relationship. So, the names seem like a schtick, but it's more profound and multilayered than that.
So, what is the glue that makes this album stick together? What are you supposed to feel when you're listening to Mer de Noms? Well, surprisingly little have been written about this, so you'll have to trust my research and interpretation skills on this one. The driving theme behind Mer de Noms is self-determination. The allusions to religion and family on the album underline relationships of servitude, which Maynard openly rebels against on Judith, arguably the most personal and straightforward song. On songs like The Hollow and 3 Libras, he discusses the existential weight and pain brought by this responsibility of one's own fate. There's a seeking for balance between flesh and the immaterial.
So, is Mer de Noms an alternative rock classic? It's definitely an album worth remembering, but it has a counterintuitive approach to the genre that make it stand out as an outlier more than an influential figure. It's full of subtle, detailed arrangements and kaleidoscopic lyrical themes bands of the genre don't really bother with. That makes Mer de Noms a engaging, but demanding spin that reveals a little more of itself every time you play it. Even eighteen years after it came out. There's a balance between cerebral and visceral pursuits on Mer de Noms that Maynard James Keenan might've never balanced that well before and made this accessible to a large public. Let's get excited for Eat the Elephant.