Weekend Listening: Mer de Noms by A Perfect Circle
Album: Mer de Noms by A Perfect Circle
Released: 23 May 2000 from EMI Music Japan
Recommended if you like: prog rock mixed with hard rock mixed with heartfelt lyrics mixed with violin
Notable Tracks: “The Hollow”, “Orestes”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Judith”, “3 Libras”
On a day when my grandpa was unknowingly close to death, I was at his farm, photographing him as he picked pears and tooled around with a fishing reel. Our lazy conversation was glossed over with the familiarity of our lives together, going nowhere in the heat, and as he began once again the stories I’d always heard, the ones that compose him even still in my heart, I grew silent save for the click of my shutter. As he moved around the yard, the familiar stories of the time when he took my grandma out for a date in the afternoon but saw her on a date that night with another boy gradually changed into much older narratives, bits from his childhood that I’d never heard before. Transfixed, I listened as he spoke of long ago memories, things like his sister Mary Esther, who named a Pekinese dog Hitler because she liked the name, who would play Highway Patrol with a childhood version of my mother, who died an early death because of complications related to her Down’s syndrome.
Slicing off pieces of pear, slipping me every other one, he mused, “Girl, when you get as old as me, you go back to childhood.” Memories, he said, came back after decades of disappearance. Daily routines were formed around the basics now, with the drive to produce, to make money, to advance so faded as to be unrecognizable. You go back to childhood, he said, and that’s how he knew he would die soon.
It seems fitting that he somehow got to have back the other bookend of his life once he’d almost run the span of his time here. Often, things come around again for us, and we seem to love it. Old records and toys from our childhoods are precious relics of that time before, and we’re more attached to the attachment than we are the actual object anymore. Nostalgia runs through our culture, doing everything from selling us Wonder Bread to packing movie houses so grown-up comics readers can see Batman potentially kick Superman’s ass. Somehow, part of the beauty of the human experience is how these things come full circle sometimes.
You might even say they come a…perfect…full circle sometimes.
Ok, I had to make that pun, but recently A Perfect Circle’s masterpiece of a debut album Mer de Noms unexpectedly dropped into my hi-fi again. Somehow, from the annals of my musical youth two tracks from this album were still in my computer, although I hadn’t had the full album maybe ever and I don’t even fucking know how I have digital versions of those tracks, but there they still are. Standing in front of the record player one night, talking and drinking a whiskey with my dude, the gorgeous “3 Libras” poured out of the speakers and took us both back fifteen years, to different states and lovers and leftover teenage emotions. Part of falling in love with someone is noticing what they notice, seeing yourself the way they’re learning to see you, and his pleased surprise that I love this track so much prompted a much-needed return to the whole album.
You can’t understand this album without fully embracing the artistic element that runs through it, because it is beautiful and drippy and proggy as fuck. Prog rock sometimes fails in trying too hard, just shoving the fucking lead’s ennui into your earholes with you-can’t-understand-my-art lyrics, or modified to the max gear, or meandering guitar wails that don’t build up anything but some dude’s ego. Abandon that before you enter here, babes, because the greatest strength of this album, what elevates this shit from a just a debut or a Tool cover band lies in the sincerity and thoughtfulness in construction of both sound and lyrics.
From the beginning with “The Hollow” the delicious contrast is apparent between Maynard’s voice, smooth with only dips down into that frayed space occupied by metal, and the music, heavy with aggravated guitar from Billy Howerdel and a driving rhythm section pushing the song forward. Most of the tracks of the album rely on this dynamic, and for the most part it works (don’t ask me about the last four tracks, which I usually, like…ignore). “Sleeping Beauty,” in particular, showcases the soaring, melodic vocals against the drone of that reverb, although “Rose” does a pretty sweet job of pulling off the kind of track that should be totally playing in a post-apocalyptic shitstorm of a church.
And then you have “Judith.” Oh god, fucking JUDITH. Unquestionably the best track on the album, this is where the melodic Maynard unleashes a jagged condemnation of God and the people who would blindly follow that religion. Swearing for the only time on this entire album, screaming and dragging out the chorus, the frustration and anger that clearly crafted this song are apparent without being annoying because the music is just so purely honest. Knowing that he’s singing to his mother, opening with the line “You’re such an inspiration for the ways that I’ll never ever choose to be,” twists the knife that is this song.
In contrast, but not conflict, lie the beauty of the next two tracks. After the chaos of “Judith”, the heavy guitars start to be hypnotic instead of jarring, and the lyrics turn even more introspective. “Orestes” pulls us down a bit, sets the scene for arguably my favorite track on the album, “3 Libras.” Acoustic guitar and the violin accompany this song about seeing but not being seen, a song that could easily be self-pitying but comes across more matter of fact and tinged with sadness. Near the end, when some of that heavy guitar pushes back in, another layer of depth gets added to the honesty of those lyrics, enhancing the message rather than diverting it.
On the day I last saw my grandfather alive he spoke to me about his youth, how flashes of his boyhood had come again to usher him out of this life. Listening to this album after such a long absence, I glimpsed what he spoke of, as memories long forgotten were shaken out from the tracks. Disbelieving my younger brother about this album, being forced to listen in the first place; seeing my brother for maybe the first time as a friend rather than a nuisance. Sleeping in a lanky guitarist’s bed, a drunk 16-year-old to his patient 20 years, begging him to not leave my side, him playing this album at 3 AM, holding my hand until I fell asleep. Shakily, but steadily louder, scream singing “Fuck your God” in the car with my little brother as I began shedding the religion I’d always found hollow and fake, finding a voice in the frustration of another until I grew up enough to find my own. Driving obsessively through the absolute dark of rural Alabama, poised to leave the oppression and abuse of my real father but not quite old enough yet, realizing he was not okay, this was not okay, I was not okay as “3 Libras” played on repeat. These old memories, maybe like my grandpa’s, pulled me both back into versions of myself long since shifted, and also into music I won’t let slip away again.