Shortcuts—Elvis Perkins’s Ash Wednesday

By Rose Dichter Schapiro

Acoustic folk rock is probably not a category that immediately appeals to you. Beware comparisons to Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Beware the hyped-up NPR folk-warbling resurgence—these are applicable warnings. This kind of strumming repetition can be boring. Watching the unassuming Elvis Perkins take the stage as he opened for lit-rock favorites Okkervil River last fall, one could have guessed that he would soon spout out some generally nice lyrics and pick some chords on his acoustic guitar before returning to the merchandise table. But when Perkins started to play, the room was filled with one of the loveliest melodies heard in a while—the song “While You Were Sleeping,” which also opens up Perkins’s album Ash Wednesday. “While You Were Sleeping” is a lyrically incoherent but irrefutably beautiful song. It takes the listener on a turn of insomnia toward the tenderest corners of slight creepiness. Perkins croons, “While you were sleeping/ the babies grew/ time flew/ the phone rang/ there was a silence/ and everybody tried to sing./ Songs competed/ like kids for space/ we stared for hours/ in our maker’s face.” The instrumentation in the song is enthralling—bass and strings swell forward as waking dream turns to morning. This song is beautiful and could make anyone believe in the power of acoustic folk rock.

That being said, “While You Were Sleeping” clocks in at six minutes, 19 seconds, and it isn’t even the longest song on Ash Wednesday. Perkins is a compelling lyricist and a good musician who self-released about a third of the songs on this record before he found a label, which makes Ash Wednesday a little more than just a “debut” record. Though Ash Wednesday is a bit long as an album, one can forgive Perkins—the songs grow in depth and intensity with each continued listen. There is lush sadness in Perkins’s music—the songs have upsetting titles, such as “Ash Wednesday,” “Emile’s Vietnam in the Sky,” and “It’s A Sad World After All,” but are not morose in their depression. They are entrancing and listenable, and their somber quietude speaks to the world we inhabit—it is a world that sometimes calls for an acoustic guitar and well composed lyrics, and not much else.