lvis Perkins’s outstanding debut record, Ash Wednesday, is sad. Eleven meditations on the fleeting nature of existence filled with china-delicate melodies, sparkling acoustic chords, and surrealist imagistic verse. Song titles include “Emile’s Vietnam in the Sky,” “Night and Liquor,” and “It’s a Sad World After All.” On first examination, it’d be easy for naysayers to dismiss Perkins as another whiny white guy in the vein of Bright Eyes, bitching about how much life sucks despite running trains on half the B-list actresses in Hollywood.
If it’s true that all great art stands alone regardless of back story, Ash Wednesday qualifies. Perkins’s powerful voice is capable of hitting Jeff Buckley’s heights; his graceful lyrics are blessed with poetic detail, filled with images of young Christmas brides, hair going gray under the spell of tragedy, and dreams “that have gone overslept.” The arrangements are pristine, melancholic pop, at times reminiscent of M. Ward, Destroyer, and Elliot Smith. Produced and arranged by Ethan Gold (an impressive solo artist in his own right), the simple and spare melodies from Perkins’s early demos have been enhanced by the blast of a sorrowful trumpet, a fluttering violin, a muffled drum.
Yet Perkins’s Greek-tragedy-worthy history fully separates this debut from the pack, a past that imbues Ash Wednesday with a sense of true gravity and sincerity, serving as a powerful catalogue of Perkins’s season in hell. The son of Psycho star Anthony Perkins, the younger Perkins’s life was ostensibly destined to turn out like most scions of celebrity oozing their way through Hollywood. Instead, the Los Angeles-raised Perkins took to music, gaining a word-of-mouth celebrity around singer/songwriter havens like the Hotel Café for his bedroom folk confessionals that unflinchingly but obliquely addressed his experiences; paramount among them, the death of his father from AIDS several years earlier.
Then, on the morning of September 11th, Perkins’s mother, the photographer Berry Berenson, stepped onto a plane to return home from Cape Cod. She never returned, smashing into Tower One of the World Trade Center at over 400 miles per hour. Understandably, 9/11 hangs heavily over Ash Wednesday, but in a timeless, de-politicized way, as Perkins eloquently grapples with the bigger issues in life: the aching nature of memory, random strokes of tragedy, and living in a world of sad Saturdays where “white noise and love are your only drug.” And make no mistake about it, Perkins’s debut is one of the finest pieces of art to have emerged from the grotesque horrors of that day.
Its opening track, “While You Were Sleeping” twists slowly for six and a half minutes, buttressed by fluttering strings and horns straight from a funeral march. At its conclusion, the album’s elegiac tone lightens with the soft toe-tap of “Without Love,” filled with a violin coda and gorgeous, nostalgic images of black-and-white ragtime dances. The levity continues with “May Day,” which provides one of Ash Wednesday’s rare non-acoustic moments, with surging electric guitars and rollicking drum hits pressed high up in the mix.
The album intentionally grows more melancholy with each track, as the first half of the album is composed of songs written prior to his mother’s death; the second half of songs written afterwards. Yet unlike the artists that rushed in the first few years after 9/11 to try to parse what it all meant, Ash Wednesday is measured and sobering. Perkins is wise enough not to tell us what it all means. He’s just trying to tell us what it means to him while staying poetically indirect and purposely contradictory. As he declares on the title track, “the closer I get to the city, the further I am from the memories.”
Few albums made in recent memory sound this harrowing or this painful, yet even fewer have such a true sense of catharsis. Listening to Ash Wednesday, one feels strangely cleansed, as though Perkins has soaked up and synthesized the word’s sins, channeling them into a work of stark beauty. Maybe it is a sad world after all, but albums like this make it a little less so.
Reviewed by: Jeff Weiss
Reviewed on: 2007-02-22