Melancholic musings on protest and resignation

From the singer-songwriter (and Alexi Murdoch “clone”) who brought even the most stoic to tears with his post-9/11-themed Ash Wednesday (2007, XL Records) comes Elvis Perkins’ most recent release: the comparatively uplifting yet equally emotive Elvis Perkins in Dearland. “While you were sleeping,” Perkins toiled away in the studio with fellow band members Brigham Brough (bass, vocals, saxophone), Wyndham Boylan-Garnett (organ, harmonium, trombone, guitar, vocals) and Nick Kinsey (drums, clarinet, vocals) under the guidance of Grammy-acclaimed producer Chris Shaw. The product is an album decidedly more genre-crossing and danceable than Perkins’ elegiac, macabre-themed solo debut.
Before listening to the band’s eponymous album, the Perkins virgin should be versed in some background information about the seemingly over-melancholic frontman. Perkins, a shrewd Brown Ivy-Leaguer, had both parental figures pass away within a 10-year time span: his father from AIDS complications and his mother in the 9/11 WTC attack. Using his music as a means of catharsis, Perkins’ lyrics make frequent allusion to the horrific deaths experienced by those aboard the fated Boeing 767.
The line “sweep up, little sweeper boy” commences Elvis Perkins in Dearland — the frontman sounding more like a troubadouresque Colin Meloy than the classically poetic voice of Ash Wednesday. Continuing in Decemberist folkloric mode, Perkins punctuates his lyrics with evocative color imagery and even includes a Dylanesque harmonica interlude. However, although the album’s producer worked with the raspy Robert Allen Zimmerman, the vocal clarity and musical precision of Perkins’ earlier work is preserved throughout Elvis Perkins in Dearland.
After such a mellow “downer” of an opener, Perkins instructs listeners to forget their cares with “Hey! What a starry day!” in the upbeat, tambourine-accompanied “Hey.” Next, Perkins turns a tragic tale of exasperated grief into a gospel-driven dirge in a piece reminiscent of what Wilco would sound like if they joined a Southern church choir that collaborated with Cat Stevens. The album’s following piece, “I Heard Your Voice in Dresden,” proves a rich tapestry of sound (as opposed to sparse, simple instrumentation) — a stylistic choice that resonates with the entire album.
Perkins’ anthemic “glory, glory, hallelujah” turns next to the hermitic musings of a self-aware young man in “Send My Fond Regards to Lonelyville.” With a title that hearkens back to themes of his solo debut, the piece references “Lonelyville” as the final destination of those who died on 9/11. In a statement of simultaneous protest and resignation, Perkins croons, “No, no, my heart will not be claimed by the fire.” As with Ash Wednesday, the sensitive listener won’t be able to stand the duration of Perkins’ album without welling up at least once.
Less inspiring than the first, the latter half of Elvis Perkins in Dearland contains lyrics both contrived and cliche. In such a mode, Perkins’ themes of loss and despair become remarkably tiring. However, two standouts remain: “I’ll Be Arriving” and “Doomsday.” Floyd-like mechanical noises dominate the former, the album’s most atypical Perkins piece, which also replicates the heavy quality of the Beatles’ “Sun King” and the harsh progressions of Stone Gossard’s Bayleaf (2001). The latter piece, “Doomsday,” utilizes carnivalesque instrumentation in an acceptably absurdist reaction to the events of 9/11 — returning once again to the themes of Ash Wednesday. Elvis Perkins in Dearland holds the potential to evoke a national catharsis if only we would stop and listen.

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