Ash Wednesday,” the title track and centerpiece of Elvis Perkins’s debut album, is a striking dirge coupling images of plane crashes and apocalyptic narratives with a mournful call for respite. His weary warble (its nasal timbre in Jeff Mangum’s range, but with Dylan as the obvious godhead) ambles over the just-keeping-time guitar and looming strings that readily kick
in when he declares, “All this life is Ash Wednesday.” Such raw power can move you to tears, and it establishes Perkins as a songwriter who can spin a generation’s tragedies—his father, actor Anthony Perkins, died of AIDS in 1992, while his mother, Berry Berenson, died aboard one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center nearly a decade later—into something transcendent. But Perkins does whimsy as well: The exuberant sing-along “May Day!” and “Emile’s Vietnam in the Sky” (with its chorus “Where do you go when you die?”) are charming songs in the vein of ’70s Van Morrison, with la-la-la refrains and harmonium-laden French-pop interludes. After the title track, there’s a slow-jam drop-off, but at its best, Ash Wednesday recalls the command of Arcade Fire’s Funeral, as Perkins finds empathy through his whimsy-fueled, sad-bastard songs of experience.