Ash Wednesday

February 28, 2009

If it is true what Soren Kierkegaard says of the poet, that he or she is one “whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music” then Elvis Perkins may be the poet par excellence.  Just a quick glance into the backstory of Perkins’ debut album Ash Wednesday (XL, 2007) shows that he is one well acquainted with sorrow.  Perkins, the son of the actor who played Norman Bates in Psycho, recorded the album over a period of roughly six years.  The recording sessions (like many events in many Americans’ lives) were interrupted by the attacks of September 11, 2001.  But for Elvis these attacks hit closer to home than just his own piece of the damaged American psyche.  His mother was on American Airlines Flight 11, one of the planes hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center towers.  And as if that wasn’t enough, this happened a day before the 9th anniversary of his father’s death, a death due to complications with AIDS.

One can then understand the canvas upon which Elvis paints the maladies and madness of modern society.  In “All the Night Without Love” he imagines loneliness as someone who would actually visit and portrays our existence as waiting in line to place drive-thru orders and seeking connection in athletic insole displays inviting the consumer to “touch me.”  In “Moon Woman II” he puns on the community forged by the necessity of asking someone else for a lighter and the need for human connection: “Does anybody have a light/I’m cold as a stone/And it’s dark in the night/And I’m up here all alone.”  The album suggests that the root problem is isolation, the horror of being trapped within ourselves, and it voices the longing of human community and contact.  In Elvis’ world we constantly reach out for that touch but we’re always ultimately thwarted.

And so it seems Perkins finally yields to a kind of hopeless nihilism.  On the title track he warbles “no one will survive ash wednesday alive/no soldier no lover, no father no mother/not a lonely child.”  Thus Elvis voices the truth that Christians hold concerning Ash Wednesday.  As the beginning of Lent, the journey with Jesus to the cross, we recognize our utter mortality.  Everyone is equal before the power of death and despair.  And so we mark ourselves with ashes “dust you are and to dust you will return…”  In this we recognize our fleeting attempts and characteristic impotence to build any kind of lasting community.

But that’s not where the Christian confession ends.  For after being reminded that we are dust and ash, we are instructed to “…repent and believe the gospel.”  The gospel, the good news that God, in Jesus, put skin on and reaches out and touches, connects, holds, and ultimately bleeds.  And so it seems that the good news is precisely that no one will survive ash wednesday alive, for in that dying, we are opened to the new life which God brings on Easter, a time according to the Bible when Jesus will again reach out, embrace, touch, and be touched (John 20.19-31).

Elvis ultimately comes to this conclusion as well, as he ends the album with a song called “Good Friday.”  He realizes that the connection longed for on tracks 1-10 of his album, and the connection longed for in our daily lives, are found in the giving of “the body and blood.”  He finishes with the hope that “Though this life is Ash Wednesday…It forever approaches Good Friday.”  And we can travel that far with Perkins, and on to Easter morning.