The title of this album by 'A Perfect Circle' gives a reasonable idea what to expect – its topic is addiction, whether it be to alcohol or to anything else. Released in September 2003, it is a concept album which tells the tale of a man who is struggling to be free of his addiction. The title 'Thirteenth Step' is very obviously derived from Alcoholics Anonymous' infamous 12 step recovery program. In my interpretation, I shall refer to the substance that the protagonist is addicted to as being alcohol – simply because it is easier to type than “the substance to which he is addicted”
'The Package' begins the record with our hero already in the depths of his addiction, and going into withdrawal. “Comfort is a mystery, crawling out of my own skin.” So he goes in search of more alcohol to quench his desire, and arriving at the dealer to “take just what I came for, then I'm out the door again”. He just wants to get the deal over as quickly as possible, his focus is completely on getting that which he wanted. “mine...mine...mine” he says, completely powerless against the craving.
After getting the package, he retreats somewhere to enjoy it. 'Weak and Powerless', shows him indulging his craving – knowing all the while how powerless he is to fight it. “Desperate and ravenous, I'm so weak and powerless.” “Jam another dragon down the hole.” He is admitting that he is powerless against it, and even as he succumbs to his desire he hopes that he can be saved - “Promised I would find a little solace, And some piece of mind. Whatever just as long as I don't feel so.”
'The Noose' shows him observing someone who has approached him and wants to help, someone who has managed to rid themselves of the same addiction - “So glad to see you well, Overcome and completely silent now.” They have rid themselves of their demons, yet the protagonist feels some doubt as to whether they can truly help him. He believes that his would-be savior is looking down on him, so he challenges him “But I'm more than just curious, How you're planning to go about, Making your amends to the dead.” He chooses to ignore their attempts to help him.
'Blue' has the protagonist drinking with a group of other heavy drinkers. Under the influence, he realizes that his attempts to "just to keep things in the shallow end, 'cause I never quite learned how to swim” have failed, and he hears a fellow alcoholic "calling out to me, she's turning blue, such a lovely color for you." He is unable to help because of his having drunk too much so all he can do is watch - “while I just sit and stare at you.”
'Vanishing' is mainly an instrumental track. He is slipping away further and further into unconsciousness, and the track consists of him drinking so much that he can feel his consciousness fading. “Slowly disappear, never really here. Floating away.” By the end of the track he would presumably have passed out.
'A Stranger' has the protagonist being beseeched by an onlooker that he does not need to rely on alcohol. However, he does not want to believe them and tries to think of ways to deny that alcohol is having such an adverse effect on him. “while I formulate denials, of your effect on me.” He refuses to believe that this stranger could care about him, “You're a stranger, So what do I care, You vanish today, Not the first time I hear, All the lies.”
The next track shifts perspective from the protagonist to someone who is trying to understand his behavior - hence it being titled 'The Outsider.' He wants to understand what has caused him to have “given in to all these reckless dark desires”, telling him that he is “lying to yourself again, Suicidal imbecile.” He continues asking him “why do you wanna throw it away like this?” Finishing with “What's your hurry, everyone will have his day to die. If you choose to pull the trigger, should your drama prove sincere, do it somewhere far away from here.” He is trying to understand why he is killing himself through his actions, and why he refuses to seek help – lying to him and to himself.
'The Nurse Who Loved Me' sees the protagonist in hospital having gone too far. He is still under the influence of the alcohol and is vomiting up what he can “Say hello to the rug's topography. It holds quite a lot of interest with your face down on it.” In his dazed state, he believes that the nurse who is taking care of him is actually falling in love with him and giving him preferential treatment. “She's falling hard for me I can see it in her eyes. She acts just like a nurse with all the other guys.”
'Pet' sees the protagonist is the grips of withdrawal while under the care of another in hospital. He wrestles with his cravings while being told “Don't fret precious I'm here ... Go back to sleep.” He is unable to sleep because of the craving that he feels, hearing it as a voice which will keep him “Safe from pain and truth and choice and other poison devils.” All the while he is being reassured that he is being protected by this other person “Lay your head down child, I won't let the bogeyman come.”
'Gravity' sees the protagonist out of hospital but unable to keep the self-discipline necessary to stay off the alcohol. “Lost again. Broken and weary. Unable to find my way.” He constantly tried to reinforce his desire to stay off the alcohol - “I choose to live, I choose to live” he tells himself. “Calm these hands before they, Snare another pill and, Drive another nail down another, Meaty hole. Please release me.” Yet his internal struggle seems to fail in favor of returning to the alcohol.
There is a track thirteen on the album, which serves instead of stopping the disc to bring it back to the first track – showing that these addicts, while they know what is going to happen and want to change, are often powerless to stop their downward spiral. There are two short instrumental tracks which I have not attempted to interpret above.
The above is my personal interpretation of the lyrics in this album, many have chosen to interpret each track as they each relate to each particular step of AA's 12-step program – I'm of the opinion that while the disc's message relates to a struggle to beat an addiction, to interpret it so strictly is to miss the point. It is a fantastic album, and I would definitely recommend it.