Bio beware

Elvis Perkins clears up his cloudy ballads
By REYAN ALI  |  November 24, 2009

KEEPING IT SIMPLE “I’m not sure of the worth of making up characters outside of the self,” says Perkins (second from left), “when the self is all that I can pretend to know.”

Elvis Perkins has got a backstory on him. He's the son of actor Anthony Perkins (most famous for Norman Bates in Psycho) and photographer/actress Berry Berenson; he's named in tribute to the King; as a kid he took guitar lessons from the Knack's original bassist. It's also a story rich in tragedy: Anthony Perkins died from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1992, and Berenson was on American Airlines Flight 11 on 9/11.

Perkins would ask that you put all these details aside. Plenty have already tried to dissect the knotted lyrics of his delicate ballads in light of what they know about his personal life. "I don't think that's helpful," he cautions listeners doubling as analysts. "There's all sorts of static everywhere getting in the way of our perception of anything."

Once a solo player and now captain of a collective dubbed Elvis Perkins in Dearland, the singer-songwriter offsets his tangled tales with an uncomplicated music, eschewing blunt emotional exposition in favor of curious characters in curiouser situations. "Emile's Vietnam in the Sky" opens with Jean Cocteau "covered in butter"; in "Shampoo," a "little sweeper boy" goes about his duties before the track assigns objects to colors ("Yellow is the color of the sun/Black is the color of a strangled rainbow"). Most confounding of all is "All the Night Without Love," a song made oddly tender by lines like " 'Touch me,' the graphic reads/On the magnetic athletic insole."

"I'm sometimes wary of putting too many direct feelings into a song," Perkins admits, adding, "I'm not sure of the worth of that, or of making up characters outside of the self, when the self is all that I can pretend to know."

His objections notwithstanding, discussions of 2007's Ash Wednesday frequently represented that solo debut as grim and woebegone. He and his band gave 2008's Elvis Perkins in Dearland a more uplifting sound, one lush with horns, harmoniums, and organs. "I'm inspired by the notion of doing good, or making some sort of successful communication. Most of the time we feel like products, like we're not alive in the first place. It's possible to bring some vitality back through song."

Two common and interlinked motifs in Perkins's lyrics are sleep and dreams, both enhancing the often æthereal cast of the music. Ash Wednesday included "Sleep Sandwich" and the majestic "While You Were Sleeping"; Dearland offers stray allusions like "I don't mind if you dream out loud" (from "Hey"). He explains, "A crazy and lonely reality has been erected around us and was built before we arrived here. Oftentimes, it seems it's not the place to be. Through our addictions, hobbies, lottery tickets, celebrity watching, and movies, we're trying to get out of here. The pure and simple way available to all of us — a place where we experience release from the elaborate cage we've constructed — occurs in the dream realms."

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