For those who observe it, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a 40-day season of repentance that ends in death and resurrection. On his debut album, Ash Wednesday, singer-songwriter Elvis Perkins explores the inevitability of death and the possibility of spiritual rebirth, with a mournful knowledge of the former and a wistful yearning for the latter. Ultimately, though, there's no transcendence for Perkins or the listener, making Ash Wednesday a tough listen with limited rewards.
The basic facts of Perkins' troubled family history provide a valuable (though already well-worn) context for Ash Wednesday: His father, Psycho star Anthony Perkins, died of AIDS in 1992, and his mother was aboard one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. Proximity to tragedy gives Ash Wednesday an intermittently powerful emotional rawness. "Does anybody love you?" Perkins sings with a lonesome chill on "Moon Woman II," sounding like he doesn't know either way. Musically, Perkins is reminiscent of the off-kilter folk-pop of Neutral Milk Hotel and The Decemberists, though without the whimsical affectations. (The exception is "May Day!", a welcome light-hearted diversion that sounds like Jeff Magnum sitting in with The Muppets.)
When Perkins' grief doesn't translate to artful songwriting, Ash Wednesday can be as suffocating as a long car ride with an inconsolable widow. Tracks like "While You Were Sleeping" and "It's A Sad World" start off promisingly but ramble on tunelessly, and by the album's end, Perkins runs out of hooks altogether. If what Perkins sings on the title track is true—"No one will survive Ash Wednesday alive / No soldier, no lover, no father, no mother, not a lonely child"—how about a few more melodies to tide us over in the meantime?