“Listening to Perfume Genius is like being handed a private diary, but one that might be written in blood, sweat or other bodily fluids.” – Aoife Barry reviews Put Your Back N 2 It, the second album from Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius.
We keep diaries in which to write secrets. Sometimes, it’s hard to transmit these from soul to pen to page; it takes courage. At the beginning of AWOL Marine, the opening track on the second Perfume Genius album, Put Your Back N 2 It, the man behind the moniker, 30-year-old Mike Hadreas, breathes in, then emits a soft sigh. It’s the sound of someone getting ready to perform, but it’s also the sound made when a notebook is opened, a pen uncapped. It’s the sound of someone getting ready to do something difficult.
Listening to Perfume Genius is like being handed a private diary, but one that might be written in blood, sweat or other bodily fluids. On its pages are admissions and thoughts that people don’t often open up about to others. He writes – he sings – about tender gay sex, about family secrets, about the heavy weight of shame, about judging eyes casting glances over same-sex relationships. On his first album, Learning, Hadreas dwelt on these secrets, and the dark corners they fester in. On Put Your Back N 2 It, he’s on a steadfast mission to cast open the curtains and let some light in.
It’s a measure of Hadreas’s spirit that he is able to wrestle with his demons and come out the other side bruised but unbeaten. The story that came with his debut was of getting caught up in drugs and alcohol in New York, followed by a retreat home to Seattle to get sober and purge his experiences. He did this through composing minimalist, confessional songs about what he had been through, using just his voice and a keyboard. Like its predecessor, the haunting lullabies on Put Your Back N 2 It can lull you into another state. Although Hadreas has gone from voice and keyboards to using more instruments on this studio-produced album, the addition of guitar on Normal Song and piano and cello on 17, for example, don’t disturb the feel of his music. It is still as intimate as ever.
With the deliberate text-speak spelling of Put Your Back In 2 It, Hadreas brings to mind Sinead O’Connor’s heartbreaking cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U, but also the raw sexuality of Ice Cube’s ‘You Can Do It’. This clash of sensuality and sexuality is always there on this album; songs that sound soft and gentle, like opener AWOL Marine, are about totally unexpected subjects (in that song’s case: disturbing homemade gay porn). Normal Song is about not feeling normal because of the shit life has flung at you; No Tear looks at body hatred and Take Me Home explores numbing emotions through paid-for sex.
These subjects are not typical dinner table fodder; they’re what therapists discuss or people scribble on unseen pages. But Hadreas is putting them out there, and stripping these subjects of their supposed shame. In Dark Parts, he haltingly but generously offers to take on the ‘dark parts’ of others’ hearts – their secret shame – into his in order to make life easier for them. His public exploration of private emotions is a beautiful, if challenging thing, but with that voice – which recalls early Elliott Smith or Antony and the Johnsons, if comparisons are called for – and those words, he makes the process easy.
In All Waters, Hadreas sings about his relationship with his boyfriend (bandmate Alan Wyffels) and how they have to limit their public expressions of affection. As it builds to a climax, we realise that beyond their private space, their love has to be restrained because of fear, because of homophobia, because of judging eyes and wagging fingers, or worse. When, in 17, he lays bare the strange fruit of his body, and calls for someone to “string it up on a fence, cover it with semen“, his words recall the death of Mathew Shepard, the gay teenager brutally beaten and left tied to a fence to die in Colorado in 1998.
Hadreas’s honesty and soul-baring is a much-needed thing, and though he’s not setting himself up as a spokesperson – and it would be unfair to pigeon-hole him based on his sexuality alone – in making his private life public he is giving a voice to those who oppressed because of their identity. The controversy around the removal of the video for Hood from Youtube only serves to show that his exploration of relationships is deemed too risky for some. It features beefy gay porn star Arpad Miklos in his underwear, but doing nothing more sexual than tenderly brushing Hadreas’s hair and badly applying make-up to his youthful face. This, said Youtube, was too adult for them. Hadreas probably doesn’t want to be the voice of a generation – he is only a voice for himself. But his words are dark poetry. “You would never call me baby/ if you knew the truth/ But I’ve waited so long for your love” he sings on Hood, which is jarringly upbeat for such a raw song. “I am scared, baby, that I can’t keep it up for long.” Like all of us, Hadreas has his dark side, but he is not afraid of tussling with it. Even when he uses someone else’s words, like on Dirge, which is an Edna St Millay Vincent poem set to music, it feels as though it was written for him.
Put Your Back N 2 It is an album made by a man who has the emotional maturity of someone twice his age – and this, coupled with a talent for crafting a soul-shattering piano melody, is what makes Perfume Genius so extraordinary. “Drive on, drive on, my special one,” he sings, in harmony with himself, on album closer Sister Song. “Don’t stop ’till you know you’re gone.”