This album was originally released in 2006 and it quietly slipped past most critic’s musical radar. It has only been with the return of Elvis Perkins and his band (“in Dearland”) to the UK that it has had eloquent reviews which nearly all mention the fact that Elvis Perkin’s mother died on one of the planes in 9/11 and that his father Anthony Perkins (star of film Psycho) died in 1992 due to an Aids related illness. In many ways this is a necessary introduction to the man as his songs are not just drenched in melancholy but drowning in it.
I myself discovered Elvis Perkins and his band at a Willy Mason gig in May. I immediately went to the merchandise booth and bought this album, Ash Wednesday. I knew little of the man’s background other than he was making a few noises on the scene. Live the band are thrilling and entertaining, on record the music is frail, fragile and far from “fun” in the traditional sense. But this in itself doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s depressingly depressive but all the more beautiful for this. Here a man pours his heart and soul out onto record and never has it felt so inspirational. The Village Voice in New York described Perkins as being “poised to express the grief of his generation”. I’m not sure about such a statement, or whether Perkins’ himself would want that association, but one can understand why this thought emerged.
Lyrically, Perkins possesses an abstract style reminiscent of Dylan’s Another Side of Bob Dylan or Bringing It All Back Home albums – clever words which shouldn’t sound right together but do work well to create mood and atmosphere. Lead single, ‘While You Were Sleeping’ sets the mood with confused lyrics mourning a world growing up too quickly for the narrator who is loosing all sense of realism. The song starts as a solo acoustic ballad, before various instruments join the man. Jazz drums and trumpets, as well as what sounds like an empty bottle being blown build the song up to an uplifting crescendo. ‘May Day’ is a glorious poppy-folk-rock track which sees a rambling collection of instruments and musicaians combine in some sort of Gregorian ritual or modern-day hippy hoe-down. This produces an amazingly cathartic emotional release and is possibly the most upbeat song on the album.
Elsewhere the mood is more sombre. ‘All the night Without Love’ sees Perkins explore a loveless relationship. The mundane and banal are explored with fine splashes of violin which give the song an almost waltzy feel. However, the tone of the song changes little and sees Perkins remember the days where, “You caused all my cells to shimmer”. Think of it as an abstract version of Springsteen’s ‘The River’. ‘It’s Only Me’ sees Perkins rile at a world which he is having trouble understanding. The sadness is almost unbearable on this track which deals with loss and the memory of those departed.
“At times I don’t know why
The tears come to my eyes
And what if I go blind
As they flow out of my mind”
Title track, ‘Ash Wednesday’ is six plus minutes of lament. The pain in his voice is clear for all to see with his vocals on the verge of breaking at many points. It feels as if he’s on the verge of a breakdown. Never has a voice sounded so fragile and simply beautiful. This is real emotion.
Initially many may find the morose and unrelentless melancholy too much. The overriding feelings of sorrow could have been avoided slightly with a different tracklisting. Side 2 of the record feels like it could induce many to take a drive down to the coast to jump off a cliff, so you have to really in the mood to hear these songs. With a little more variety, Elvis Perkins’ second album could well be a masterpiece of the modern singer-songwriter genre.
As it is his debut Ash Wednesday is a brilliant album when you’re feeling down and out. If anything it is a reminder that no matter how large your problems may appear to be, how much grief you have been experiencing, there is at least someone else who has been through a similar, if not worse, experience. It’s a refreshingly honest and personal album and you can’t ask for anymore than that. As Bruce Springsteen said, “the best music is there to provide you something to face the world with”. Ash Wednesday easily provides you with enough ammunition to face whatever the world throws at you.