The music of Tool: How to embrace your shadow

“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” (C.G. Jung)

Maynard James Keenan’s lyrical opus showcases his lengthy battle with his own demons, his gradual attempts to work out all the issues that had been weighing him down, whatever they were, and to emerge a better, or at the very least, a more aware human being. God knows we all have our issues, and no one has managed to escape or outrun them. Whatever you have left unresolved, comes back to haunt you.

The steady, continual preoccupation with making himself a better human being, this self-education, is to me the most fascinating aspect of Keenan’s work, and one I find myself being able to relate to the most. And who better to consult on this journey of self-discovery, than Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss guy who made it his life’s work to marry psychology and alchemy?

Jung authored the concepts of the collective unconscious, individuation (integration of the psyche), psychological archetypes, and the shadow self (which is basically Freud’s ‘unconscious’ plus the happy company of the collective unconscious). And if you understand alchemy as the study of how to grow from an impure soul riddled with fear and doubt (lead) to a perfected one (gold) – rather than as a search for a chunk of gold that’ll make you rich and somehow immortal – you can see how Jung made the connection between science and mysticism.

Looking at Keenan’s lyrics throughout the years he’s been active in both Tool and A Perfect Circle, it becomes obvious that he’s been heavily influenced by Jungian psychology and preoccupied with the concept of the shadow-self from at least as early as Tool’s 1993 album Undertow. The lyrics to the single “Sober” open with, “There’s a shadow just behind me/Shrouding every step I take/Making every promise empty/Pointing every finger at me.”

The shadow is basically comprised of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, which we bury in our subconscious, usually during childhood, because we’re ashamed of them, and in later life they remain hidden from the conscious mind. These are traits that we abhor in others but fail to recognize in our own personality. Jung believed that because the shadow acts as a “reservoir of human darkness,” it is also the “seat of creativity.”

In order to have a functional, healthy psyche, Jung believed each person has to go through the process of individuation, where the psyche integrates different innate elements of personality and life experiences to create the individual self. However, since most of us tend to bury what we perceive to be negative aspects of our personality, the individuation process is thwarted and never fully completed, as we refuse to accept and deal with certain aspects of ourselves. Without individuation, personal growth is impossible.

Jung thus advocated facing your shadow, delving into and exploring this dark side of ourselves and trying to come to terms with what we find to be there. Accepting your shadow, though, doesn’t mean approving of what you don’t like about yourself, but merely becoming conscious of it. This means that the process can be dangerous, as sometimes this descent into darkness leads to people identifying with their shadow and becoming hostage to it. A great example for this is the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where the good doctor fails to integrate his shadow (Mr. Hyde) and instead allows it to overwhelm and dominate him.

Cover image for Undertow
Cover image for Undertow

In Keenan’s case, we see him starting out with being aware of his shadow, and also being aware that it’s stopping him from moving forward. The opening song on Undertow, “Intolerance,” begins with, “I don’t want to be hostile/I don’t want to be dismal/But I don’t want to rot in an apathetic existence either.” This would seem to indicate readiness and willingness to change, as change is necessary for progress. The song concludes with, “I will no longer tolerate you/Even if I must go down beside you.”

When he next confronts his shadow in “Sober,” Keenan tells us what he sees: “I am just a worthless liar/I am just an imbecile/I will only complicate you/Trust in me and fall as well.” These are his shadow’s projections, creating a veil of illusion, a barrier between him and the outer world, and also the stuff that will hurt the people trying to connect with him: “I will find a center in you/I will chew it up and leave/I will work to elevate you/Just enough to bring you down.”

The song’s title and first few lines initially seem to be referring to alcoholism-related issues, but Maynard’s later implorations in the chorus, “Why can’t we not be sober?” and “Why can’t we sleep forever?,” lead me to read sobriety as ‘awareness,’ meaning he would rather not be dealing with all the negative aspects of his personality that he encountered, either by drowning them out in alcohol or going back to a previous, un-aware state where he could just forget his troubles.

The extremely dark “Prison Sex” sees a (male) victim of childhood sexual abuse taking revenge via sodomy on his intended victim and thus “coming round full circle” and finding “some kind of temporary sanity in this.” The ominous line “Do unto others what has been done to you,” which later morphs into “Do unto you now what has been done to me,” reinforces the idea of revenge, but also paints the picture of somebody stuck in a vicious circle and succumbing to their shadow.

Even the album title, Undertow, seems to suggest arrested growth, a force from the depths pulling you down and impeding progress. The way I see it, Keenan on this record appears stuck, suspended in an interminable moment of fear and indecision between continuing on this difficult journey of self-discovery or going back to his old way of life.

Cover image for Aenima
Cover image for Aenima

Three years later, on Tool’s next album Aenima, we see Keenan a step away from fully embracing and accepting his shadow, as showcased in the brilliant, complex song “Forty-six & Two,” a hymn of sorts for shadow psychology and self-improvement. Here, Maynard is down in the depths of his shadow, looking for clues to help him figure out how to step back into the light, and he’s quite literal about it: “My shadow’s shedding skin/I’ve been picking scabs again/I’m down/Digging through my old muscles/For a clue.”

He feels that change is coming, though, because he knows he’s ready for it. He is ready to face his shadow and see it for what it is, realizing that it’s an integral part of who he actually is. “I wanna feel the changes coming down/I wanna know what I’ve been hiding/In my shadow/Change is coming through my shadow.” And later: “I wanna feel the change consume me/Feel the outside turning in/I wanna feel the metamorphosis and cleansing I’ve endured/Within my shadow.”

The key words here, of course, are ‘metamorphosis’ and ‘cleansing,’ also two crucial elements of the alchemical process. In order to achieve purification, a person must go through a long and painful process of transformation, from heavy, dark, unmalleable lead (earth-bound physical body), to bright gold (spiritual being, soul). And the only way to change lead is to heat it up, introduce fire, shed light on it. As Jung put it, “A person does not experience enlightenment by thinking of the light, but by shedding light on the darkness.”

In fact, Keenan lets us know that it’s been a long, arduous journey, and that it often felt like he was running in circles around himself: “I’ve been crawling on my belly/Clearing out what could’ve been/I’ve been wallowing in my own chaotic and insecure delusions.” But change is inevitably here: “Change is coming/Now is my time/Listen to my muscle memory/Contemplate what I’ve been clinging to/Forty-six and two ahead of me.”

And here we come to the mysterious numbers ’46’ and ‘2.’ Again, a Jungian idea playing with the possibility of progressing through evolution to a point where the human body would no longer have the usual total of 46 chromosomes (seen as an imperfect, imbalanced state) but an additional two, thus reaching a perfected state. D. Melchizedek, who expounded Jung’s idea, thought this could be the next step in human evolution, as the numbers appearing in nature and the human body reflect a ‘sacred geometry.’ Not so dissimilar to the basic concepts of alchemy.

The Flower of Life, courtesy of Google images
The Flower of Life, courtesy of Google images

In fact, Keenan is telling us that he feels close to becoming a better, improved person. The change that’s coming is actually him embracing and accepting his shadow: “I choose to live and to/Grow, take and give and to/Move, learn and love and to/Cry, kill and die and to/Be paranoid and to/Lie, hate and fear and to/Do what it takes to move through.” The revelation is so stark in its simplicity that you almost feel like you’ve been messed with: embrace the fact that both your good stuff and your bad stuff make up who you are – it’s what makes you human. And human nature has the capacity to ‘live, grow and give’ as well as to ‘take, kill, lie and hate,’ as Keenan just told us. Or as the ancient Roman playwright Terence put it, “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” This is also the final stage of the alchemical process: the conjunction, or marriage, of darkness and light, of the earth-bound physical body and the spiritually aspiring soul.

In other words, we have it in ourselves to be both Hitler and Mother Theresa, and neither is beyond us. Which is probably why we’re urged not to judge others. Accept that the worst imaginable traits are lying dormant in you, and just move on, and try to be the best version of yourself that you can. After all, they say it’s your actions that define you, not your (hidden) thoughts. And that seems to be Keenan’s plan at the end of the song: “Hoping I can clear the way/By stepping through my shadow/Coming out the other side/Step into the the shadow/Forty-six and two are just ahead of me.”

I love the fact that this is a fanmade video for the song, which used a scene from the movie Pan’s Labyrinth to illustrate the Jungian descent into the darkness of one’s psyche, the sheer terror and loneliness of it. Whoever made it clearly understood perfectly both the movie and the song. Not to mention Tool’s usual video esthetic.

Again, the title of the album (Aenima) is symbolic: an amalgam of ‘anima’ (Latin for ‘soul,’ also the final stage on the Jungian individuation process, a/k/a alchemical gold) and ‘enema.’ Both words connotate purification, in this case both physical (enema) and spiritual (anima). In other words, a higher state of being, which is what Keenan had been striving for all along and, hopefully achieved in some measure. But more on that in my next post, which will talk about the album Lateralus and its significance to me.

Gold lies hidden in the dark. (C.G. Jung)

Further reading:

Ford, Debbie. The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. Riverhead Books, 1998

Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy

Jung, C.G. Mysterium Coniunctionis. Published in The Collected Works of C.G. Jung

2 thoughts on “The music of Tool: How to embrace your shadow”

  1. Awesome article. I am a huge Tool fan and have recently been trying to understand the philosophy and psychology behind Maynard’s lyrics to help with my own transformation. I was recently at the Egyptian theater when during an interview he mentioned the flower of life. First time I’ve heard of it. Looking forward to your next article about Lateralus!

    1. Thank you so much for the positive feedback, it really means a lot. It’s hard to write about Tool and stuff like alchemy without coming off as a pretentious fool who thinks they’ve got it all figured out. If you wanna keep corresponding on the subject, I’d be very happy to exchange ideas.

      As for more writing about Lateralus, I did have a follow-up post ( about it if you’d like to read more, but I think I’ve more or less said everything I’d wanted to. And yet, who knows, I might be inspired to write further on some individual songs. 🙂

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