How would you feel about Elvis Perkins’s music if you didn’t know that his father was the actor Anthony Perkins, who died of AIDS when Elvis was 16? Or that his mother was Berry Berenson, photographer and actress, who died on American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston when it crashed into the World Trade Center? Or that the songs on Elvis’s new Ash Wednesday were written in chronological order, with the title track the dividing line between those written before and after his mother’s death? Or that, yes, “Ash Wednesday” was written on that day the February after September 11?
My first sight of Perkins — who plays the Newport Folk Festival on Sunday and the MFA next Wednesday — was on David Letterman. He came out in a black sport jacket and open-collared shirt, wire-rim glasses, face tilted up toward the microphone, strumming an acoustic guitar in a shuffling waltz, and sang, “While you were sleeping/Your babies grew/The stars shined/And the shadows moved.” Eyes half-closed, his hair pasted down around his ears in a perfect indie-boy cut. His voice became more ardent: “While you were sleeping/The money died/Machines were harmless and the earth sighed.” Who is this Billy Bragg kinda guy, I wondered. An acoustic bass came in, then brushes on hi-hat and snare. Then some guy scooted out from backstage and starting pumping and playing a harmonium. “And so I waited for/The riddled sky/To be solved again/By the sunrise.” Then another guy came on stage and started playing flügelhorn. The piece rose to a kind of New-Orleans-funeral-parade threnody.
Maybe all or none of these reasons are why I’m now hooked on Elvis Perkins, and why I need to replay “While You Were Sleeping” every time I hear it, almost immediately, like a hurt whose only cure is the hurt itself. I don’t like every song on Ash Wednesday (XLRecordings) as much as that, but there’s a lot here to like. Perkins steps unabashed into a tradition that includes Bragg and Leonard Cohen and, on the celebratory music-hall la-la-las and dirty electric-guitar pop of “May Day!”, a bit of John Lennon. He’s an assured singer and songwriter, but his real talent is for making you lean in to hear those words — where will they go next, skirting topicality and autobiography into a personal dream language? (“Sleep Sandwich” is another title.) “Emile’s Vietnam in the Sky” seems to be some perverse Godardian take on “Lucy in the Sky,” with its opening line: “The Cocteau is covered in butter/The ghosts of cappuccino and Zsa Zsa hover.” There’s fiddle and accordion, a repetition of the lyrics off-mic in French, and the refrain: “Do you ever wonder where you go when you die?/Emile’s Vietnam in the sky.”
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