When Mike Hadreas crawled under his bedsheets at his mother’s house in Everett, Washington a few years back, something clicked. Feeling at the end of his rope after a dark period spent messing with drink and drugs in Seattle, Hadreas had gone home to regroup, and quickly found himself writing the spare, wracked confessionals that wound up on ‘Learning’, his 2010 debut under the moniker Perfume Genius.
A remarkable effort it was, too. Dealing with topics of addiction, abuse, and the author’s wrestle with his own sexuality, ‘Learning’, like a crash mat at the bottom of a seven-story drop, offered comfort in the unlikeliest of places. But great as the first record was, even fans had to admit that ‘Learning’ walked a fine line, artistically speaking. After all, too much reverence can be a chore, as anyone who’s lost feeling in their bum cheeks through Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life will tell you.
Can [a]Perfume Genius[/a] pull it off twice? ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’ certainly opens in familiar fashion, ‘Awol Marine’’s wrenching, minor-chord piano stabs paired with an arrangement that’s as starkly unadorned as its author’s whippet frame. If it sounds slightly in danger of lapsing into Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats weepie ‘Memory’ at any moment, we’re going to let that one slide.
‘Normal Song’’s hymnal waltz recalls Conor Oberst minus the whiny psychobabble, while ‘No Tear’ continues in a torchy, keep-on-keepin’-on type vein, like Antony Hegarty on a vaguely gospel tip. ‘17’ cleaves towards the darker edges of Hadreas’ repertoire, but a peculiar lyric (“String it up on a fence/Cover it up with semen/I am done, I am done with it”) can’t dispel a slight feeling of déjà vu at this point.
‘Dirge’ has something of ‘Spirit Of Eden’-era Talk Talk’s prayerful feel, but it’s ‘Dark Parts’ that feels like a minor breakthrough, Hadreas letting a powerfully swelling arrangement take some of the emotional weight: “The hands of God were bigger than grandpa’s eyes/But still he broke the elastic on your waist/But he’ll never break you, baby”.
‘Hood’ offers a similarly fleshed-out arrangement, with a moderately rousing middle-eight that echoes Hadreas’ sexy/unnerving confession that he’s “ticking like a bomb”. That the promo clip for ‘All Waters’ was pulled by YouTube for featuring two topless men hugging is ironic given the lyrics, as Hadreas ponders a world in which he can hold his lover’s hand in the street without feeling self-conscious. Not this world, evidently.
‘Floating Spit’ beats a partial retreat to ‘Learning’’s chillier climes, but it’s the closing, trad-sounding ‘Sister Song’ that reflects the album’s shift towards a more positive outlook. At times you might find yourself wondering what happened to the Mike Hadreas who dared to dream that even paedophile teachers might have guardian spirits watching over them. But really, that troubled kid never went away. It’s just that this time, he’s more concerned with reaching towards the light.