Perfume Genius, or Mike Hadreas to others, and Mike to his mates, I would assume, earned his place on the vast landscape of modern music with debut album ‘Learning’ in 2010. His appeal was based around a very typified sound, constructed from a bed of melancholic piano, accompanied by tender vocals and a collection of lyrical subject matters that were starkly honest and gripped its audience with shades of perturbing detail. His songs used a sense of minimalist purity to resonate with its listener, it would shock you that someone could put out something so blunt, but yet so vulnerable and delicate. In many ways, his music represents absolute honesty, with the sort of fearlessness that many of us can barely even muster when in complete solitary confinement to ourselves. Placed in more simplistic and tangible terms, his trademark sound could be reduced down to something more minimalist, and less electronic than Xiu Xiu.
The problem with minimalist music is that it can fast become stale and old. To be truthfully honest, on first listen, I found this second album a little disappointing. I didn’t feel that it had taken what was achieved with ‘Learning’ to new ground. But then of course, I listened again.
It is only when the songs really begin to settle and imprint their respective shapes and moulds upon your mind, that the soft brittle touches of the album, that are so easy to scornfully dismiss as complacent, or demean as being overly self-involved, or simply vacuous, really begin to resonate with you, and blossom in your ears and mind. Strokes of sound and lines of words begin to sit with you with a much greater feeling and more distinct pertinence. It is perhaps the most exciting stage of listening to any sort of music, when you can’t quite get a grip on a song, or fully understand or surmise what it is all about, but yet you know that you have been struck and captured by it in some obscure, abstract and wholly unique way. It is a feeling of intangible and insurmountable force.
It is with this open-minded outlook that Hadreas’ music is best embraced. It is easy to criticise and call overly indulgent, or lacking the discipline of refrain, but I feel that approach of critique is short sighted in refusing to acknowledge the true dynamics and details with which each track is actually constructed. You see, Hadreas’ music isn’t actually all as bleak and sullen as your first impression may have you believe.
The album is extremely similar, but yet distinctly different from the first record in a way that is hard to firmly put your finger on. What it manages to do even more than ‘Learning’, is make a series of songs that, track-by-track, each feel different and unique from each other, but yet when you reach the end of the album’s flow and look back, all seem to merge into one effluent stream.
With access to a greater level of instrumentation and arrangement, the music is a touch richer, and certainly more accomplished and varied. Songs like ‘Hood’ contain a nice injection of euphoric pace that help break up the, at times, torturous flow of the album. However the balance is still struck so that it still retains the fundamental and overarching duality of keys and vocals that make his sound resonate so softly, and personally. Despite still being intensely intimate, the album appears slightly less introspectively focussed on the battles of the self, but upon a broader expanse of emotion, which is perhaps more universal in its appeal. If ‘Learning’ was written for himself, a musical bildungsroman of sorts, ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’ is written for a million others, in empathy, understanding and encouragement. Hadreas has said of his second album, ‘I didn’t want to just go through my diary again, I wanted to write something more forward-moving, something about things that were going to comfort me now, as opposed to trying to heal up old things.’ This deliberately and assertively progressive, forward-thinking mentality grows more and more evident with each listen. In this way it can be seen as a more valuable work of art, written with slightly more detachment, but a touch more wisdom, strength and spirit.
The album name is something that is difficult to get your head around and fully understand, a sort of vague glimmer of humour, albeit slightly outdated, amid such a vastly damp and overcast field of dripping wet emotion. Opening track ‘Awol Marine’ grows in size and stature with a slow but liberating frenzy of noise. In a flash we rush back into what seems a deliberately raw and open ‘Normal Song’, something that is more typical of his work. ‘No memory, no matter how sad, no violence, no matter how bad, can darken the heart, or tear it apart’, the timid manner with which these statements of solidarity are whispered echo the overarching theme of someone’s struggle to deal with a variety of issues, from, in Hadreas’ case, physical abuse, drug addiction and homosexual relationships. As someone who has openly stated that he doesn’t trust himself, this record reveals a sense of desperate uncertainty that belies the solidarity and strength of these words written down on paper. It is in the grips of this cruel dynamic that we find the real battle being played out here, between head and heart. Because despite everything else, the lyrics persistently retain a sense of hope and purposeful resolve in a way that not only feels ironic, given the instrumental melancholy that accompanies it, but represents the sense of forcing one’s self into positive rhetoric, an inner courage dragging them through hurt for the sake of their own self-preservation. In this way, Hadreas makes it hard to dismiss what he is doing as purely bleak, wholly ‘doom and gloom’, because like all good narratives, it shows the battle of two very distinct but universal forces in life, antagonising each other inside the mind of one man, spun out for us on this record. That sense of self-consciousness is key to his performance, that underneath the strength of these words, we can feel the horror of it all. And it is that torturous inner battle that we can only assume is where the album title stems from.
The album finishes with the words ‘drive on, drive on, my special one, don’t stop, until you know you’re gone’, which is of course characteristically dark, but conveys a message of an abstract form of solidarity which summarises so much of what works about this album. Whilst clearly written at an extremity of emotional expression that would alienate many and push him to one end of the musical spectrum, it is still a gripping portrayal of human emotion and a psychological battle of the tortured self that is still vaguely universal to all of human life. It is an album that is difficult to try and contextualise and place amid the work of others, but it is a wonderfully strange and intriguing experience, and something that at the end, leaves you with an impression that I personally think, all things considered, actually surpasses that of ‘Learning’.