Elvis Perkins catches melancholia in a bottle and carves out his own place among the upper tiers of our contemporary folk artists.
"I can't listen to this now; it's too depressing." My girlfriend said that when Ash Wednesday came in the mail -- and she meant it in the best possible way. We had already heard a couple of tracks and, in the midst of grieving a loved one, we decided that Perkins' melancholy themes hit a little too close to home. That's when I realized how some of us like to repress our sorrow; sweep it under the rug to be dealt with another day. Then there are those, like myself, who prefer to wallow in it; let it engulf you until you feel it gravitate to the pit of your stomach. So for me it's ok that Ash Wednesday carries a constant reminder of lost loved ones and screwed-up relationships -- all the better. Let the misery seep in; and hopefully the experience will be somewhat cathartic.
Of course, for Elvis Perkins, this may be about a more profound sense of loss. Elvis is the son of Anthony Perkins (yes, Norman Bates) who died of AIDS in 1992. And as if fate was not done with the Perkins family, they were dealt another blow when the "ill-widowed wife", photographer and actress Berry Berenson, also perished in one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. Elvis Perkins' thespian lineage and compelling story provides convenient backdrop for the album. The surprise of this whole affair is that Ash Wednesday actually lives up to the dramatic rhetoric. These harrowing tales of woe are not only good enough to stand on their own but exceed our highest expectations. Perkins' does not exploit his tragic past; nor is it the defining characteristic of the album. Instead tragedy and death are merely vehicles for conveying the stark emotions and themes that run throughout Ash Wednesday.
Death is pervasive, unavoidable. On "Emile's Vietnam in the Sky" Perkins succinctly asks, "Do you ever wonder where you go when you die?" He postures about what dreams may come and depicts a personal utopia sort of like My Own Private Idaho; a fictitious place with "French blues and Swiss bank accounts". We all have our own "Vietnam in the Sky" and although it is completely fabricated, it somehow remains conceivably within our grasp.
Six-minute opener "While You Were Sleeping" is a beautifully woven folk tune. Acoustic guitars and sentimental imagery slowly evolve to a modest drum beat, with horns and strings thrown in for good measure. There is even a chorus of children singing the "Oh, Ohs" as the song descends into silence. All this instrumentation is applied moderately and creates one of the most delightful, and painfully poetic, folk songs I've heard since "In the Areoplane Over the Sea".
Perhaps the most harrowing, mournful tune is the title track "Ash Wednesday", where Perkins' voice extends until each note seems ready to snap like a rubber band at any moment. "No one can survive / Ash Wednesday alive," he laments. We are given the sense that we are all doomed as Perkins chronicles the laundry list of people who will inevitably perish. The string arrangement on the bridge appropriately complements his emphatic, soulful wailing.
There are times when Perkins seems to be channeling John Lennon (the Sgt. Pepper-ed vocal harmonies on "May Day"). And there are others when he does his best Jeff Magnum impression (the horns on "While You Were Sleeping" echo Neutral Milk Hotel). But these similarities can be overlooked as Perkins does an impressive job at catching melancholia in a bottle. Elvis Perkins has carved out his own place among our contemporary folk darlings and it looks like a comfortable fit. So get your hankies ready; Ash Wednesday is a tearjerker. But my advice is to give in and let the sorrow to take over. Let it all out -- trust me, you'll feel better.