It's a pretty bold move to move on to a full-band project after releasing just one well-received solo album. But Elvis Perkins has done just that on Elvis Perkins in Dearland. It isn't that much of a step out -- his name is still in the title -- but with a new and lively band behind him, Perkins has stretched his musical muscles and bulked them up with another compelling batch of songs.
What made Perkins' debut, Ash Wednesday, work so well was his ability to be introspective without resorting to navel gazing. The album, much of which was about his father, Psycho actor Anthony Perkins, sounds personal and aching but never slips into trudging, woe-is-me sadness. On Elvis Perkins in Dearland, cut loose from singing about his father, Perkins continues to pull himself out of the darkness and toward the light. These songs are bittersweet but energetic, often hushed but never too fragile.
The new band also pushes Perkins toward some new sounds. There's the horn-filled bounce of "Send My Regards to Lonleyville," and the sunny psych-pop of "You." Then there's the way the string-section slowly takes over on the excellent "123 Goodbye," and the equally great "I'll Be Arriving," where Perkins and Dearland tap into On the Beach-era Neil Young and deliver a dirty, bluesy scuffle.
There is still plenty of Perkins' bread-and-butter acoustic pop on this record. On "Chains, Chains, Chains" the band lays down the barest of rhythm tracks and, aside from an occasional swell of strings, lets Perkins perform a vocal high-wire act. He half-mumbles verses, occasionally pulling on a phrase, until he bursts out shouting the title refrain with all his might, like he's pulling at those restraints with every syllable. Closer "How's Forever Been Baby" is a great ballad, equal parts heartache and sardonic smirk. Perkins delivers each awkward verse like a late-night drunken phone call, always building to that title line, expecting it to sting the heartbreaker. But instead, after revealing all his hurt, that punch lands soft, and it makes the song itself hit all the harder.
Perkins has proven himself to be a versatile, surprising and compelling songwriter. On Elvis Perkins in Dearland, he walks the thin line between charming entertainer and confessional songwriter beautifully. As on Ash Wednesday, Perkins is still dealing with death, and you get the impression his music always will be, but he is pulling even further away from the pain and anger of it. Instead, like Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits before him, Perkins grins wildly in the face of death. Just listen to the scary-free zeal of "Doomsday" and you hear the sound of a man unafraid, of a songwriter who can wrap his songs warmly around you, and then crank that warmth up to a burn for a minute without notice. He may be in a band now -- and a great band it is -- but Elvis Perkins in Dearland is, above all, the sound of a singer-songwriter coming into his own.