Album Review: "Thirteenth Step" by A Perfect Circle
This is a great album. It represents significant growth for A Perfect Circle, and gets better with repeat listenings. Addiciton is a dark subject, but APC takes a refreshingly honest look that most heavy-ish rock fans can appreciate. You can find the album on Amazon in CD and MP3.
This is the first in what will hopefully be a series music reviews. I'm taking a look at the album "Thirteenth Step" by A Perfect Circle (APC). Yes, I know this album is 8 years old; this is my first time writing about music and I wanted to practice on a genre and album I've listened to a few times first. I would welcome any feedback to help me improve. I wanted to dive more deeply this time, but I expect most future reviews will be a bit shorter.
The band has publicly stated that this album is about addiction, and it comes through very strongly throughout the experience, from the title (a reference to the twelve steps of recovering from addiction) to the hot-and-cold nature of the tracks. This album is a significant departure from "Mer De Noms," their first studio effort, and fans of their dark & intense style might be in for a shock with the direction APC took here.
"Hot and cold" is the best way for me to describe the energy of this album. I see it as mirroring the highs and lows of addiction. The album shifts suddenly and violently from light and atmospheric (A Stranger) to intense and present (The Outsider). Some tracks also exhibit this pattern themselves (notably, The Package).
Keenan does an incredible job with his unique vocal talents, and uses this album to explore a softer style that is, surprisingly, more reminiscent of Tool songs like Parabola(abola) than tracks from "Mer De Noms".
Though I am biased towards the bass guitar, I think that both White on bass and Freese on drums do an incredible job of setting the mood on this album. This comes through brilliantly on "The Package": listen to the play between the stick-work, bass drum, and bass through the first 2 minutes and the transition from snare rim to toms to build up the track at 1:33.
Howerdel on general guitar and Leeuwen on guitar for Gravity, Vanishing, and The Package have the largest swings in intensity. For many of the tracks guitar defaults to providing atmospheric backup that layers on top of Keenan's harmonies, but comes to center stage for the intensely driving choruses that we find in tracks like The Outsider and . No one can disagree that Howerdel and Keenan own Pet entirely, with bass and drums playing ancillary roles there.
Many of the tracks are told in the first-person perspective, and switch back and forth between addressing 'I' and 'you'. Though this isn't unusual for lyrics, APC uses it in an usual way. The album comes off as a conversation between two halves of a self. With rare exception (in Pet and The Nurse Who Loved Me), 'I' is is the sober, self-aware, conscious self, and 'you' is the out-of-control junkie. We get to hear the two perspectives of the narrative of addiction through careful selection of perspective in different passages in tracks. I delve into this in the track breakdown.
Notably, the entire album is about internal struggle and self-renewal. I found this a refreshing break from albums all about 'love' and other, more external, emotions (or sex, like "Mer De Noms"). I read this album as being about heroin addiction, but I think addicts of any kind will resonate with its message. I ended up doing some research on drug addiction (since I don't have any personal experience!) to help me understand the thought process of an addict.
The album only has 12 tracks, so I ask you, what is the thirteenth step? If you follow the tracks in sequence, the protagonist goes through many attempts at reform, but ultimately fails every time. Incredibly he still ends in Gravity with some hope for the future. Is the thirteenth step to start the cycle again? or is it to finally be at peace, self-aware and reformed?
The Package - This is my #1 favorite track on the album. The hunger of the junkie, looking for his fix. Needing his fix. Only worried about how to get his next fix. The songs keeps it cool and distance for the first half ("smile and drop the cliche", "time to feed the monster"), when getting a hit isn't as hard and times are good. Listen to the intensity of the musical hits that punctuate the desperation in Keenan's voice in the latter half - "Give this to me…mine, mine mine…take what's mine…this is mine" The latter half of the track transforms completely, so that even the verse is a much stronger musical statement.
Weak and Powerless - An acknowledgement of the lows of sobriety. The driving, vamped, and energetic feel carried is in the hi-hat and bass. The descending bass lick at the end of milder phrases accurately foreshadows something with more energy. Vocal layering in the chorus ties to the theme of second-person perspective. The extended bridge lead-in at 1:31 is a bit jarring, with the arpeggio having a country/western feel, and comes off as unnecessarily lengthy.
The Noose - Killing yourself with your addiction, and the struggle to recover. Keys in on the reality of coming down from the high and realizing that your life is falling apart. There's a note of sarcasm throughout this work ("not to pull your halo down", "so glad to see you well") that is coupled with a cynicism about any possibility of self-reformation ("someone else's atrocious stories"). I love the play between the image of a halo and its transformation into a noose.
Blue - "Calling off the meds." Incredible vocal work; the verses sound very 'real' and 'present'. This track features more of those narrow driving bass line verses and the grand, wide-open multi-track chorus. Note the feeling of isolation during the guitar solo that starts around 3:00.
Vanishing - The desire of escaping from the real world. The hi-hat keeps the 'real' intensity going, while Keenan moves into dream-like multi-track arpeggiated harmonies. The passage around 1:08 feels a little reminiscent of Rush's atmospheric guitar sound. This tracks feels like it drags on a bit, and I lose the feeling after a while.
A Stranger - Not being honest with himself - shunning the side of him that is an addict and trying to forget the feeling of having other sides of his personality come forward ("what am I to do with all this silence", "shy away phantom", "I'm better off without you tearing my world down"). The music is very appropriate
The Outsider - Great use of 3/4 time. I feel like it's a waltz between the junkie and his true self at a mad masquerade ball. The switch to a 3+3+2 cadence in the bridge feels like the waltz gets tripped up, and almost even violent with the bass line ("narcissistic…beauty queen"). The scream at 3:15 is memorable as it leads to a lyrical (and musical, and mental) breakdown in 4/4.
Crimes - Great atmospheric piece. Note how the whispered counting changes tone for '9', from a whisper to more of a low growl. The boomy audio mix sounds like an indie rock set, and is a welcome break as the album heads into the home stretch. Note awkward the arrhythmic noise/silence for the last 30 seconds of the track, which is probably the best transition they could work out.
The Nurse Who Loved Me - I can only imagine this is the feeling of being at a methadone clinic: getting the fix you need and falling in love while being completely high. The lyrics and music are space-y and atmospheric ("Say hello, to all the apples on the ground. They were once in your eyes, but you sneezed them out while sleeping.")
Pet - Probably the most well-known track on this album, and the most reminiscent of APC's work on "Mer De Noms". This piece feels like the temptation that someone faces to fall back into the comfort of addiction while fighting to get better. You hear the call to "go back to sleep" and fall into the comforting numbness of the high. Here the perspective changes, where the first-person is the junkie deep inside ("Pay no mind what other voices say. They don't care about you, like I do." and "Stay with me - safe and ignorant") This is the closest to rehabilitation on the album.
Lullaby - He has given in to the beast inside, and fallen sleep. Beautiful vocal work from Jarboe that plays on the themes of the much more intense Pet.
Gravity - My #2 favorite on this album. Is this the true point of redemption? "I choose to live" seems to indicate that this is the moment of true resolution. There is a recognition of the difficulty ("I fell again, like a baby, unable to stand on my own") like we saw in The Noose, but a hopefulness for the future in "I am surrendering to the gravity of the unknown". The dark, heavy, intense bass line pervades the verse and bridge and colors the entire track with a seriousness that is fitting for the end of the album. The ending is weak, but I see it as an acknowledgement that the process of recovery isn't finished.
My favorite lyric delivery in "Thirteenth Step" comes in this track:
"Calm these hands before they snare another pill, and drive another nail down another needy hole. Please…release…me". Great use of guitar to punctuate this phrase - the guitar soars high above Keenan with a majestic flair.
As always, if you have any feedback on my writing style, want to discuss APC or this album more, or just want to talk about music, feel free to contact me.