VINE VOICEon 28 April 2009
On September 11, 2001, the life of Elvis Perkins changed forever. A day short of the ninth anniversary of his father's passing, Perkins' mother, Berinthia Berenson, was on board one of the ill-fated flights that hit the World Trade Center. Blessed with what would appear to be an idyllic childhood, Perkins was the son of two talented creatives; his father was actor Anthony Perkins (famously cast as Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho) and his mother was a well-respected photographer. In the space of nine years, Perkins' charmed life would become beset with tragedy. In what is the second, and possibly conclusive, part of his often quite perturbing public catharsis, Elvis Perkins In Dearland sees Perkins countenance his loss with both great honesty and dignity.
Listening to Perkins' debut album is an excruciating experience. Ash Wednesday is a truly beguiling piece of music and funereal to the extent that you feel like you're placing flowers beside him. Although half the album was written and recorded before Berry Berenson's untimely death, the whole album seems flooded with melancholy. In the way we apply meaning to the most abstract confessions and declarations of the singer-songwriter, so we can't help associate each word and each major and minor chord with the turmoil of a grieving man. Clearly under the influence of Dylan, Perkins, well before time, delivered his own Blood On The Tracks.
Yet, for all its melancholy and for all its bereavement, Perkins' music possesses the delicate charm and eccentricity of an old, wiry vagabond that has spent too much time on his own, proselytising in pubs and bars to people who are simply fed up of listening. Like all the best singer-songwriters, loneliness and a wandering mind are merely tools of inspiration for Perkins. Intricate weaves of poetry touch on themes mythical and historical; walking with Perkins can feel a bit like holding Alice's hand through Wonderland. Comfort comes in the form of pleasant and uncomplicated melodies which, in a fashion not dissimilar to Dylan, help soften Perkins' marching rhythms and occasionally austere, drawling vocals.
Throughout the Ash Wednesday tour, Perkins was joined by a number of talented multi-instrumentalists and collectively they went by the name of ...In Dearland. Using the momentum of the tour, famed for its rambunctious performances, Perkins kept the set up united and worked on new material in the studio. The results are superb. For all the ways in which the first album mirrors the mood of one of Dylan's masterpieces, so ...In Dearland mirrors another, Blonde On Blonde.
Lyrically, ...In Dearland is obscure, though it is marbled with the reflection that so characterised Ash Wednesday. However, the mood is now one of celebration rather than contemplation. Having had time for the sense of pain to subside, Perkins now recalls happier times and glorifies his mother's memory with an easier poignancy.
Opener Shampoo sets the tone with its bluesy-folk adorned with Hammond organs and harmonicas. Perkins, reaching the extent of his range, proclaims: "you are worth your weight in gold / you're worth your weight in sorrow, baby / though you'll never know why." Whether Perkins has a new love or is merely remembering past loves, he is making sure he is heard. Hey betrays Perkins' roots with its Roy Orbison bluesy rock n roll. Like Richard Hawley, Elvis Perkins is wilfully trapped in a bygone age. Hours Last Stand's military snare and spiritual undertones accompany Perkins eulogy to "a lonely love". As before, there are some moments not for the faint of heart.
The Buddy Holly hop-groove of I Heard Your Voice In Dresden lifts the mood and so does the classic Dylan-esque verse follows verse follows verse busker's anthem, Send My Fond Regards To Lonelyville. The album's last four tracks are simply beautiful pieces of folk-rock. Sounding more like Cat Stevens and Donovan than Dylan, Perkins uses both strings and brass to great effect. Beautifully produced, there is no excess and little in the way of indulgence. Doomsday sees Perkins revisit the events of 9/11 but in the most unlikely way. It's big band carnival parade acts to banish negative memories of that grim day as Perkins sarcastically quips: "I don't let doomsday bother me / does it bother you?" It is clear Perkins intends to enjoy his life as his parents would have wanted: "I don't plan to die! / nor should you plan to die!"
123 Goodbye sees Perkins looking for closure - "1,2,3 goodbye / I love you more in death / than I ever could in life" - while at the same time attempting to understand the abruptness of the circumstances - "once in a lifetime / will the undoing of two souls / be so easy to do". Although painfully raw for Perkins, he never allows himself to wallow. He merely uses his music to help search his mind for answers and conclusions. The final reflection of How's Forever Been Baby, flush with piano and harmonica, leaves the album tangled up in blue.
As a happier denouement to Ash Wednesday, Elvis Perkins In Dearland is a sign that Perkins is slowly freeing himself of the torment of his loss. Let's hope he has found the answers he has been looking for.