Elvis Perkins

Ash Wednesday

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Son of actor Anthony Perkins, who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1992, and photographer Berry Berenson, who was killed in the September 11 attacks, Elvis Perkins has plenty of material about which to write, and plenty, if he wanted, to make his debut, Ash Wednesday, a bleak affair. But while the album is certainly not uplifting, filling its 11 songs with their fair share of heartache and loneliness, Perkins avoids reveling in depression and instead follows the route that other singer/songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, and Bob Dylan have put down before him, telling detail-driven stories of people and life ("...your cameras caught me crying as I left your gates/...your maintenance men, they caught our last embrace") rather than painful confessions. With a voice that hesitates between David Gray's and Thom Yorke's, he sings songs of desperation and reflection and love and sadness over strummed acoustic guitar chords and slow drums; he's earnest and afflicted but not verklempt, only occasionally rising into an affecting yet controlled cry. Instead, Perkins shows emotion in nuance. He's a careful, studied songwriter, relying on subtlety to convey his meaning, meaning that is revealed better -- almost counterintuitively -- when he breaks free from the man-with-guitar mold (found in the unmemorable "It's a Sad World After All") and flirts with more complex arrangements, like in the Rufus Wainwright-esque "Sleep Sandwich," which brings vibraphone, trumpet, tympani, and violin to Perkins' steel strings, and swells gently, pushing past folk into lightly orchestral pop. "While You Were Sleeping," the strongest track on the album, slowly adds instruments until the end is only distantly related to the beginning of the piece, and it's lyrically excellent, the singer moving in the A-section to the B-section; from talking to the sleeper to talking about himself ("I'll never catch up to you who sleeps so sound/My yawns are useless, my heart beats too loud") dropping into minor chords to complement the change, to highlight the sadness. But there's a kind of redemption in the face of the sorrow found on Ash Wednesday. "Come lay here beside me/And I'll fear no death/I'll give you my body/And I'll breathe your breath," Perkins sighs on the closer, "Good Friday." It's not an assurance of happiness, but it is an offer of hope, so that despite all that's happened, there's possibility for reprieve. Coming from a man who experienced so much before he hit thirty, this is probably as much an encouragement as we'll get, and that's got to be enough.

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