Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Mer de Noms

Someone I once knew very well said that it never pays to reinvent the wheel. Thus I don't intend to gush about A perfect Circle or Keenan here, though I could and want to.

Found a great review of their first album, Mer de Noms, just now. From the heart. And finally, someone other than me has written about Orestes, one of the songs on this album that--- Geez. How else does one explain it except by saying it was on repeat for 2 weeks, and is still played every day? Its beautiful, as is Keenan.

Thank god for Maynard. He gives me a reason to stop looking for reasons.

here's that write up, full text below:

Thoughts on A Perfect Circle's
"Mer de Noms"
I know now that not all the sirens were women.

Something tells me that whoever thought up such a notion has never heard Maynard James Keenan sing. Yes, there are plenty of gorgeous voices in modern music and many of them have been compared to these mythical beings whose voices made men crazy. When Maynard James Keenan's life is over, he will be remembered as one of the best voices in hard rock music -- better than Robert Plant, better than James Hetfield (even now that he really can sing). At this point in his life, Keenan is not the kind of man that rock journalists wax lyrical about; too many of them are still intimidated by his ability to sing with such fervent honesty, to write songs that cut close to the bone -- or through the bone. His is a voice that rages and growls, but can also croon with surprising delicacy, something that has allowed songs like Tool's "Sober," "Jimmy" and so many others their heartwrenching, gutwrenching and unflinching beauty. This is no ordinary voice.

I was talking to a friend recenly while listening to the songs from A Perfect Circle's "Mer de Noms" and I said, "I swear, Maynard's voice could melt steel."

"It has," my friend replied.

To think that songwriter/guitarist Billy Howerdel originally intended to make "Mer de Noms" with a female vocalist. As beautiful as the music is, it is Keenan's voice that makes this album come alive. His is the siren's song that pulls us through the Mer de Noms -- the Sea of Names -- the songs on this album -- with such grace and sadness and purity -- with such anguish and fury and intensity. Every time I listen I am pulled ever deeper into the undertow of his voice, lost among the lyrics and tones and harmonies, maddened by how gorgeous and ecstatic it feels to be pulled in this way. I go willingly.

"Orestes" goes straight for the heart; it is the song from which the band takes its name, and its own name comes from the figure in Greek myth who is exiled after his mother, Clytemnestra, slays Agamemnon, his father. Orestes later returns, and with help from his sister Elektra, kills his mother and her lover. It is perhaps the most beautiful song Keenan (who penned the lyrics to all 12 tracks on "Mer de Noms") has ever written. It is the voice of the fetus aborted in the womb, or the grown man cutting all ties to his mother even though he recognizes they are forever entwined by the cycles of the universe, inner and outer: "Pull me into your perfect circle/One womb/One shame/One result," he sings in perfectly measured tones as his clear voice belies the horror of the situation. "I can almost hear you scream," he continues. "Give me one more medicated peaceful moment/I don't want to feel this overwhelming hostility." It speaks to Oedipus, to Freud, to Tori Amos' simultaneous acceptance and condemnation of violence in her "Waitress" and James Hetfield's struggle to let go of the memory of his mother in Metallica's "Mama Said." "Liberate this will to release us all/Gotta cut away/Clear away/Slip away and sever this/Umbilical residue/Keeping me from killing you." Its chorus is the smooth slip of the water breaking, the birthblood spilling, the body's quick descent out of the warm womb and into the cold, hardened world. Keenan's voice is just as smooth and slick, saline tongued, but its melancholy is ever-present and unfathomable. Love and hatred bundled into one tiny, pounding heart, into one perfect circle of death and rebirth, mother and son, blood and bone. I have heard this song many times now, and yet I have not lost the urge to weep uncontrollably when I listen to it.

"Magdalena" and "Judith" walk hand in hand, the two halves of religious meditation, the holy whore and the unholy martyr. "Magdalena" undulates with layers of passion and disgust, remembering the sacred prostitute and what she has become, what she makes men feel when they go to her. She dances on the pedestal, her legs wrapped around the towers of sanctity and sacrilege as men worship at her feet. "Overcome by your moving temple/Overcome by this holiest altars," Keenan sings. The guitars blare, a siren of panic in the air. "I'd sell my soul/My self esteem/One dollar at a time... for one taste of you my black Madonna." His voice becomes more distorted, unleashing a primal fury and fervor that can only exist in this place.

But "Judith" comes quickly; the other face, the other side of the coin. Here is the holy woman, the righteous woman, the self-righteous one who is ever suffering, ever denying herself the world -- and denying the truth in what she believes. "Your lord, your christ/Took all you had and left you this way/Still you prayed, never straying/Never taste of the fruit/You never thought to question why... He did it all for you." "Judith" is like falling, the descending slide of the guitar and Maynard's smooth, cut-glass crescendoes providing no place to grab hold. This is the love of the Christ figure in oneself, the love of a figurehead, the love of a man who has betrayed; all this is here. "Judith" embodies denial, self-hatred, the dichotomy of Christianity, the sacred turned inside out, the sacred become the scared, the hidden, the alone, the terrified.

"Hollow" is the dance in the ring of fire, the passion of lust outside of time; knowing what it is to be pure aflame and unashamed. But it is also the want so strong it becomes need, endless need; it could be for the love of another, the sex of another, or something more chemical. Bodily addiction. We are slaves to the flesh, inner and outer solidified in a single cry like the baby screaming for the breast. "Screaming feed me here/Fill me up again/Temporarily pacify me." The vampire in us never sleeps, and always hungers for something we think only another can give; but while we take and take again, it is temporary at best, and at worst, creates in us an ever increasing starvation of the soul. There is no give and take, only take, and take, and more take. Give me, give me.

Furthering the cause, "Thinking of You" is pure sex, the rhythm, Keenan's breath close in your ear as you listen, quick and penetrating in a way his voice has never been before. Then the breakthrough, the cascading tones of the chorus: "Sweet revelation," he sings, "sweet surrender." This is not a Sarah McLachlan tender surrender, but a complete giving of the self, and letting go, never knowing if you will see yourself again. He is the predator; you are the prey, helpless, shuddering with every drum-beat and gasp; yet you are willing, open, nevermind the consequences. There is no tomorrow; only now. With a voice like that, who wouldn't go willingly?

"Three Libras" takes us away on sheer gossamer wings of strings and subtle guitar, shimmering in the dawnlight of a new day, a magical place inside a Maxfield Parish wonderland. Keenan's voice is smooth as blood over milk; watching, wanting, waiting, wishing, wistful, bashful, resigned, hopeful and hopeless. A caress, speaking to an angel and yet to someone so ugly, so blind and hurtful as this. "I threw you the obvious to/See what occurs behind the/Eyes of a fallen angel/Eyes of a tragedy/Oh well/Apparently nothing at all." Then the guitars come, the pain, the cutting blades of reality in washes of glass, clear but slicing so deeply: "You don't see me. You don't see me at all."

"Breña" is born of the same air, winging away to a faraway land -- inside? Or elsewhere? In our own mind, or in the mind of this being called Breña? There is a solace here, however temporary; "Heal me, heal me, my dear Breña," Keenan begs. The flipside is "Sleeping Beauty," where it is in vain to heal the wounds that cut so deep, she is asleep for eternity; no prince can come to fix her with a kiss. Everything is broken, nothing is real. "Such a fool to think that I/Could wake you from your slumber /That I could actually heal you." Like in so many of these songs, the desire for the quick fix is more potent than the fulfillment of true joy; the passion that burns from within controls everything. Nothing can fix you. Nothing can make you see what you do not want to see. It is useless to resist.

There are so many pure moments on "Mer de Noms," so many inexplicable ones. The lost sounds of "Over" and the tremulous thumb piano bouncing against Keenan's lyric; the eerie, almost wordless tones of "Renholder" and its chiming, time-ticking guitars, ever descending into the depths; the self-rousing fury in "Rose" -- a deceptive name if ever there was one on this sea of names -- and the forgiveness and piety of "Thomas," offering another way to fill the hollows of the soul -- but for real this time? At least now the guidance comes from within.

"Pull me in to your perfect circle." They have, and moreso. Some will criticise this work for not being Tool, not being of that musical quality (as if that standard was anything close to fair); others will criticise it for being too much like Tool. Keenan's voice is the buoy, the lighthouse. The siren. Calling us forth, but to what end? In the sea of names, I am drowned.

~ Beth Winegarner.


vampire in goleta said...

i remember this essay from a few years ago. now that i have found it again i saved it to my flash drive to remind myself of how less cynical i was. thanks for writing this