Let’s take a minute to consider the intense emotional revelation of the first 10 minutes of Perfume Genius’ debut record Learning. A twinkling, iPhone-ad piano introduced with a needling “no one will answer your prayers till you take off that dress,” then a haunted allegory of a deeply confused high school teacher trading weed for sexual favors before casting himself off the top of a building. It earned Perfume Genius man Mike Hadreas some talking-points because, well, these are things we must have conversations about. The nature of psychosis in the 21st century, what it means to be openly homosexual in America, the open expulsion of unflattering demons – far more disquieting than they are steely or intrepid. He approached the world like someone just barely on the other side of a train-wreck, in his candid interviews he spoke like someone who was still in the depths of his troubles. Two years later he remains a startlingly singular artist. His beautiful second album, Put Your Back N 2 It, replicates his graceful, honest sense of songwriting, with an added sense of sonic density filling in the gaps. His career is young, but it still feels like a defining moment.
Some artists like to write about their discord like a galvanizing slash of you-don’t-know-what-I’ve-been-through. Hadreas is not one of those artists, simply because writing a song called “AWOL Marine” inspired by the sleazy, degenerate self-hatred that must come after one of the participants in the homemade porno you’re watching admits that he’s “just trying to get some medication for his wife.” It just isn’t the sort of problem you’re willing to admit. Songs like that pop up all over Back, feeling anxious holding your partner’s hand in public (“All Waters,”) love and false acceptance in prostitution, (“Take Me Home”) – all handled with poetry, grace, and a vague sense of danger, somehow never flagrant of pandering. For all of the ruminative topics he tackles, it never isn’t about the songs.
Shortly after Learning arrived, Hadreas started playing Neil Young’s immortal “Helpless.” A gentle, disarming ballad that sounded brilliant in his fragile tones. Much of Back feels like an inversion on that theme – calm, darkened piano ballads rooted in the soaked-up tradition of songwriters like John Denver, Gram Parsons, and Jackson Browne. Sure it’s hard to think those guys would ever admit to the things Hadreas does, but that’s what makes his music so gorgeously uncanny. Red-blooded American methodology filtered through a perspective you scarcely see; it practically reinvents the Southwestern jaunt. You could actually picture this version of Perfume Genius on a stage.
“You would never call me baby /if you knew the truth” begins “Hood,” arguably the record’s best song. The momentum of an opening salvo carries Hadreas through his liveliest musical moment – a cresting, school-dance strut. It is not about any specific affliction; those words are universal. How often we feel we’re living a lie? Hiding the ugliness on the inside? Trying to stay as far away from the truth as we can? It often feels like Perfume Genius succeeds in such simple ways, staying shockingly honest with his listeners. It’s the stuff that keeps us skipping back to the beginning of his songs, out of self-administered therapy.
Put Your Back N 2 It is a deeply affecting album, but also a plainspoken one. He never forces you to listen with blunt trauma; you could drift along to the melodies at complete ease if you wanted. The darkness only reveals itself if you want to find it. It’s a formula most songwriters could only dream about, how such weight could be carried in such familiarity.