Lateralus: A soundtrack for personal growth

I came to discover the music of Tool rather belatedly, and in a roundabout way, having first delved into A Perfect Circle and their debut album, Mer de Noms, in 2001. Mesmerised by M.J. Keenan’s haunting voice and lyrics, I traced them back to the source. Coincidentally (or not), Lateralus, Tool’s third full-length album, came out in 2001. So I actually began my journey in a reverse chronological order, working my way back through Tool’s discography.


As I discussed in my previous post, Lateralus represents a continuation of Maynard James Keenan’s decade-long preoccupation with Jungian psychology and the shadow self, as well as with working the seam leading to alchemical gold. In the 5-year gap between Aenima and Lateralus, the band was looking at prolonged legal fights so they each took some time off to work on other projects (which led to the creation of A Perfect Circle on Keenan’s part).

Having come to terms with his shadow self on Aenima, Keenan doesn’t mention it again on Lateralus, and shifts his focus on how important it is to learn forgiveness, patience, and communication, and to achieve the balance between body and mind. Once again, these issues are reflected through the prism of alchemical teachings and Jung’s individuation process, in which Keenan seems to be somewhere near the final stage, that of a wise old man who has found his anima, and is now carving out a different path for himself in the world, armed with this self-knowledge.

For an album exploring such zen-like, philosophical notions, Lateralus is incredibly ponderous and difficult to listen to, alternately aggressive and mellow. It requires faithful devotion to absorb, as if you were doing it via osmosis rather than your hearing apparatus. And as if this was done on purpose – as if Keenan and Tool wanted to make you work for its clues and revelations. I remember working my way through it song by song, letting each one sink in and pondering its message, and only then being able to listen to the album as a whole. I’ve shown this level of patience only with one or two other albums in my life. But at the time, this one was my one link to sanity and reality, keeping my focus trained on what really mattered, and that was digging myself out of the hole I was in.

Lateralus came to me at a very difficult time in my life, and I can credit it with preserving my mental integrity and helping me work through some serious issues I was facing at the time  – my parents’ alcoholism, a very painful breakup of a difficult relationship, trying to carve out a new path for myself in its aftermath, and having a general sense of being completely rudderless had all conflated.

The album talks, very simply, about the individual struggle to find ways to reconcile the basic dichotomies on which the world rests – physical/spiritual, life/death, individual/communal, past/present – and use this antithetical experience to attempt personal growth (the ultimate goal in alchemy), as well as to find a way to communicate that to others. In fact, communication is the underlying score for the entire album. How difficult it can be to connect to other people, to understand them and be understood in return, and how easy it is to give up trying for it.

The song which directly addresses this issue is “Schism,” the absolute centerpiece of the album, also the first one I happened to hear off of it. Each stanza ends with an exhortation/admonition of sorts regarding communication – from “crippling our communication” through “bring the pieces back together and rediscover communication” to “doomed to crumble unless we grow and strengthen our communication.” Keenan’s concern seems to be that we as individuals have lost our ability to communicate, express ourselves and relate to one another, thus missing out on the essential component of the human experience, one which differentiates us from animals.

The meaning of the song can be interpreted on several different levels, as is usual with Keenan’s opus. The first time I heard it, fresh out of a breakup which resulted in absolute stone cold silence (“Cold silence has a tendency to atrophy any sense of compassion/Between supposed lovers”), the relationship dead-end level registered first with me. Hell, my mind imploded on the very first few notes of the intro and that cold, analytical, vivisecting bass line, even before Maynard started singing. Later, when I analyzed the lyrics in more detail and looked for the play of words Keenan seems to be so fond of, I realized there were at least two more levels of meaning the song addresses.

The first one becomes apparent just by looking at the song title. Schism can refer to the Great Schism (a/k/a East-West Schism) in the medieval Catholic Church in the 11th century which led to its division into the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. The theological disputes that led to it today seem petty and almost trivial: the source of the Holy Spirit, what type of bread to be used during mass, the Pope’s right to universal jurisdiction. Which only drives home the point I think Keenan was trying to make: a great monotheistic religion, rallied and united for so long under the banner of just one person’s message of peace and love, can be torn and riven from the inside due to people’s lack of communication, the insistence on not listening to the other side’s arguments, and the blind struggle for power. Hence the line “Cold silence has a tendency to atrophy any sense of compassion/Between supposed lovers/Between supposed brothers” (‘brothers’ here taken to mean ‘brotherhood of men united under the same idea and for the same cause’). Just by adding this last tidbit about supposed brothers, Keenan managed to infuse a second level of meaning into a song that appears to be talking about relationships on its surface.

The second level of interpretation I derived from Keenan’s persistent mentioning of ‘pieces that fit’ throughout the song, punctuated by his ferocious, almost screaming repetition of “I know the pieces fit” at the end of the song. The song opens with “I know the pieces fit ’cause I watched them fall away,” which then morphs into “I know the pieces fit ’cause I watched them tumble down.” The third mention, however, is the one providing the clue: “There was a time that the pieces fit but I watched them fall away.” To my mind, this harkens back to Plato’s theory of the androgynos, expounded in his Symposium – the idea that male and female souls (Jung’s animus and anima) used to share the same body, but then got split into two halves which are doomed to wander the world looking for their other half. (Hence also the idea of soulmates, heavily distorted in modern times.)

With this in mind, “There was a time that the pieces fit” would refer to a faraway time of unity, before the world was separated into equal opposites – male/female, night/day, etc. – a time when people could still make sense of their world and didn’t perceive it as antithetical. In fact, every cosmogonical myth in every major religion in recorded history shares the same basic story of a schism within the unitarian, peaceful beginning which then becomes this fragmented, binary existence we know and live and struggle to reconcile with.

Béla Hamvas, Hungarian thinker, writer and librarian extraordinaire, who made it his life’s work to connect the dots in different ancient texts, reached the above conclusion in his seminal work Scientia sacra, where he also explored the notion of the androgynous being. The purpose of the androgynos idea, Hamvas posits, is reintegration – bringing the missing pieces of the once unified male/female being back together. Or, if you prefer the Jungian concept of individuation, finding your anima (if you’re a man) or animus (if you’re a woman). Or better yet, if you like alchemical processes, striking gold by reuniting body (earth; female principle) and mind (heaven; male principle). Or if you like the Lord’s prayer, on earth as it is in heaven. (No, Jesus didn’t think that one up all by himself, he was quoting from a tradition that pre-dates him by a couple centuries.)

So when you peel off all these opaque layers of meaning, Keenan’s “Schism” seems to be advocating reintegration of the self through the re-discovery of communication and acceptance of others, who are so different from us and yet so similar, “finding beauty in the dissonance.” Other people serve as mirror images of ourselves, and it is only from them that we can learn about ourselves and use that knowledge to grow. As Keenan warns us, “doomed to crumble unless we grow and strengthen our communication.” By insisting that he knows the pieces fit, Keenan seems to say he believes us capable of rediscovering the basic tenets of our humanity, and ultimately, rediscovering that the universe somehow makes sense with us in it.

Which is what the couplet song(s) that follow immediately after “Schism” seem to reaffirm. “Parabol”/”Parabola” talks of accepting your body as a vehicle of life and reconciling it with the demands of your mind.

Again, the play of words already apparent in the song titles is striking, and serves to reinforce the thematic unity of the album.  A parabol is a satellite dish, something that receives and then re-emits a signal. A parabola is a mirror-symmetrical curve, thus echoing the ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ idea already touched on in “Schism.” The same metaphorical treatment of song titles persists on the entire album, with the opening song, “The Grudge,” talking about what most people find hardest to do: letting go and forgiving. This song also happens to be the one where Keenan most explicitly mentions the alchemical process, referencing the “transmutation” of “leaden grudges into gold.”

Lateralus remains my favorite Tool album, although strictly musically speaking, Aenima is probably the better of the two.  However, the former speaks to me on too many levels to count, and stands as a memorial to my own struggle to become a better human being.

I Ching, Hexagram 5: Hsu, or Waiting
I Ching, Hexagram 5: Hsu, or Waiting

3 thoughts on “Lateralus: A soundtrack for personal growth”

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