Elvis Perkins in Dearland
If you've never heard of Elvis Perkins, surely you've heard of his parents. There's been far too much press discussion of his parents already, but a brief family synopsis is in order. His father was Anthony Perkins, best known for his Academy Award-nominated role as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho - his mother was the photographer/actress Berry Berenson. While the circumstances of his mother's death would normally have no place in a review, it is important here: the latter half of the album was written after his mother died in the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Elvis Perkins has written only one album, Ash Wednesday (2007), but it is an album of such intensity, of loss and of a deep, heartfelt sadness that is almost inexpressible in words – but it is also an album that espouses the value of hope, and ends with a song that is both sad and triumphant, a song that manages to summarize the entire album. That's incredibly high praise for such a newcomer, but it is entirely deserved. I'll say it now: Elvis Perkins is the best thing since bread. Not even sliced bread, just bread in general.
With that said, let's start the review. I'll begin with a few songs that are not on his album, but which are equally brilliant:
“Shampoo”: This is a unique Perkins song – musically, it may be more mature than anything found on Ash Wednesday. Lyrically, it can stand next to anything on that album, and I will be sorely disappointed if it is not on his next album. Perkins himself describes the song as a “metaphysical love song,” which isn't too far off base. It's certainly not any sort of love song that you may have heard before, but it does have the traits of a kind of love song. This is the real stuff, people. The lyrics are almost childlike in their description of colors:
Yellow is the color of my true love's crossbow,
yellow is the color of the sun.
Black is the color of a strangled rainbow:
that's the color of my loss.
Black is the color of my true love's arrow:
that's the color of my blood.
“Weeping Pilgrim”: Okay, so Elvis Perkins didn't write this one. It's actually a very old hymn – but it's such an amazing arrangement that I had to include it here. The playing on this song truly is amazing; Perkins manages to bring life and vitality to this song that likely wasn't there before. It's a true testament to his talent that he is able to take any kind of music and make it his own. Oh, and the guitar solo is so hot it burned my fingers. In much the same style as The Beatles, any solos you might find in Perkins work (and they are extraordinarily rare – in fact, the only two I know of are in this and “May Day” on Ash Wednesday) are not to draw attention to the fact that you are listening to a guitar solo, but to further the narrative of the song.
Ash Wednesday (2007)
Released by XL Records, a small independent record company, Ash Wednesday has not received nearly the publicity that it should. Elvis Perkins in Dearland (his recently-formed band's name) has worked with Chris Shaw, Bob Dylan's producer; they performed “While You Were Sleeping” on Late Night with David Letterman; “While You Were Sleeping” was featured on The O.C.; “Moon Woman II” was used in Fast Food Nation - but no one seems to have heard of Elvis Perkins. Perhaps understandable, as the man is hard to pigeonhole - the album is difficult to review, so I have chosen to pick a few select tracks instead of reviewing the album as a whole.
“While You Were Sleeping” (track one): My first exposure to Elvis Perkins was through this song, which I stumbled upon in an article from The A.V. Club. It also led to my single-minded hunt for every single piece of music the man had ever composed. Musically, the song is relatively simple: it begins with an acoustic guitar, and is eventually joined by bass, drums, violins and backing vocals. But it's not about the music (which is great), or about how the words are sung (which is also very good), but it's about the lyrics: "So I waited for the riddled sky to be solved again by the sunrise." The song is an intricate dream sequence, describing impossible things that happen in the dreamworld, quite literally "While You Were Sleeping":
While you were sleeping
the time changed.
All your things were rearranged.
Your vampire mirrors, face to face -
they saw forever out into space
and found you dreaming in black and white
while it rained in all the colors of the night.
“It's Only Me” (track five): This is one of those songs that, like some of Dylan's work, is brilliant in a way that isn't completely understandable. The lyrics open by describing someone “walking through the pillow that night.” The music is simple – only an acoustic guitar and Perkins' voice. A better version is his performance of the song in the back of a black cab in Chapter Sixteen of the Black Cab Sessions (look it up!), where he plays the song on a twelve-string acoustic guitar, with some ridiculously good harmonica playing as accompaniment. Similar to "While You Were Sleeping," this song deals with things that occur in dreams. In fact, the entire first half of the album deals primarily with the world of dreams - and the second half deals with the harsh realities Perkins had to face upon waking, after his mother's death.
I grew it in the shade
when the sun couldn't shine.
And 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?
It worries me.
“Ash Wednesday” (track seven): This song begins the second half of the album, which – as you'll recall – was written after the death of Perkins's mother. It is immediately apparent that this is a very different tone for the album: “No one will survive Ash Wednesday alive – no soldier, no lover, no father, no mother, not a lonely child.” Couple this with Perkins's soulful and quietly intense wailing and it creates a track that haunts the listener long after first hearing it.
The closer I get to the city,
the further I am from memory.
In the green grass looking up
for the words of the angry sun:
“No one” - when he says “No one,”
yeah, he means “No one”
No one will survive
“The Night & The Liquor” (track eight): This song is perfect. The lyrics are perfect, and the tone of the piece is perfect. The vocals are just right – the song's placement (immediately after “Ash Wednesday”) is perfect, for it describes the path of self-destruction that very often follows great personal loss. Perhaps even the way it is sung is perfect, for at times it's difficult to understand what Perkins is even saying.
Now the night and the liquor coming on,
I hardly see your sister.
Now that the star's in the sky,
Won't you come back, baby?
“It's a Sad World After All” (track nine): While the title may give you the impression that Elvis Perkins is an irredeemable emo kid who's just been dumped, the song itself is both tender and gentle in its tone. Granted, the song begins with “Stay if you want; there is enough sadness for the both of us,” but this is necessary for the rest of the song to truly work. This is the beginning of the end of the album, where the tone begins to quietly shift towards hope - even if that hope may be unwarranted. This is also one of the few songs on the album that involves harmonizing vocals, and they work very well here.
And I would be happy
for you to stay
with me, 'til tomorrow
can become today.
In a sad world.
In a sad world.
“Good Friday” (track eleven): This is it. The culmination of the swirl of emotions, of sounds – it's the marriage of pain and contentment: “Come lay here beside me, and I'll fear no death; I'll give you my body and I'll breathe your breath.” The song is incredibly brilliant, and is perhaps made even more so in that it is the concluding song of a first album. Everything about this song is perfect; it summarizes everything that Perkins said in the rest of the songs, and adds a brilliant and touching element of hope:
The time of our fathers
is not ours to kill.
Their sad-cellared wines
are not ours to spill
and won't be passed over Good Friday.
Though this life
is Ash Wednesday,
it's Ash Wednesday,
it forever approaches Good Friday.
His second album can't come fast enough.