The back story of Mike Hadreas, the man behind Perfume Genius, reads like something out of a teen lit novel. After years spent dealing with drugs, depression, suicide and abuse, Hadreas sequestered himself in his mother’s Washington home and recorded the 10 piano-driven songs that would make up his debut album Learning. Learning itself is wholly indebted to that subject matter, dealing with it in plain and stark language, with Hadreas’s vocals only accompanied by pianos and organs and other manner of keys. It’s a deft way of handling these topics, giving them their proper emotional weight while mostly avoiding that teen-lit sense of melodrama.
Hadreas’s voice stands out within the first few moments of opening track “Learning,” containing the soft-spoken tenderness of Sufjan Stevens and the fey, ethereal quality of Jónsi. Unfortunately, Hadreas never allows his vocals to soar like either of those artists. The closest Hadreas comes to breaking out of his shell is on the tracks “Gay Angels” and “No Problem,” which switch out piano chords for organ drones. Even on those tracks, he uses his voice only as an extra texture.
The tracks on Learning have an abundance of texture. Glittering pianos crop up on closer “Never Did,” some synths decorate the background of “Lookout, Lookout,” and pleasant piano overdubs add additional melodies to almost every track here. This isn’t a problem, per se, but it seems that many of these songs swapped out added texture for movement. As a result, many of these pieces seem simply to sit, beautiful but static.
Movement is of utmost importance in pieces like these, where one piano riff is generally the basis for the entire song. In its absence, short songs like “Write to Your Brother” and “You Won’t B Here” slip by almost unnoticed, and the three-minute-plus tracks that close the album begin to drag. It’s a shame, too, because there a lot of lyrics here that should be heavy hitting in their plain-spoken sincerity but get lost in stiffness of these arrangements. The textures of these songs, like the swooning vocals and spoken coos near the end of “Gay Angels,” or the mumbled poetry behind “When,” want to create that movement, but ultimately feel tacked on. They come off simply as something piled on, as opposed to organic, natural extentions that take the music from one place to another.
One culprit could be the production. The vocals and piano are treated exactly the same way across Learning, but a different effect on the piano or a dryer vocal track could have allowed Hadreas to move these tracks with his voice or his instrument, as both clearly have the emotional power to do so. Lyrics like “No one will answer your prayers/ ‘Til you take off that dress” could cut harder if all the edges of Hadreas’s delicate voice hadn’t been softened.
The single, “Mr. Peterson,” stands out as the highlight here, where the subtle ebb and flow of the piano’s rhythm and the dynamic change between verses accent and move the tragic high school teacher tale. Less strong melodically, but still of note is the coda of “Perry,” where the flow of the song switches abruptly and becomes insistent, almost barreling forward in comparison.
Each song here, when attention is paid, is gut wrenching, honest and unabashedly sad while maintaining a sense of resigned acceptance. It’s a tough emotional trick to pull off, but Hadreas does it effectively. The arrangements and production, however, tend to drown out Perfume Genius’s ability to juggle his subject matter, leaving songs that just don’t quite break your heart.