Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Perfume Genius: Learning

Perfume Genius
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: Matador

A reviewer can really feel like a prick for criticizing songs that are apparently as personal as those on Perfume Genius' debut LP, Learning. The man behind the band name is Mike Hadreas, whose hard-life biographical back story has already made the rounds in the indie press almost to the point where it's difficult to discern that dividing line between truth and clever PR. Though knowledge of Hadreas' background unarguably gives the album an added gravity and Learning has been hailed as an instant classic by some media members, such praise seems just a tad bit excessive. It's an affecting mood record whose themes of death, isolation and - just maybe - redemption will strike a chord with countless listeners, but it's weakened by a too-uniform sound and a few cumbersome individual tracks that detract from the album as a whole.

In photos, Hadreas appears gaunt, frail and bruised, which is also a fitting way to describe Learning's sound. Its 10 songs are only roughly sketched out and most often consist of lo-fi piano, organ and synthesizer, often in a minor key and held together by Hadreas' thin vocals. The album's stark sound is that of a man struggling to deal with some serious shit and that comes through in the songs; starting with the opening title track and continuing throughout, Hadreas sings like he's too weak to get the words out. He usually makes it though, offering listeners loaded-gun lines like "No one will hear all your crying/ Until you take your last breath." The album maintains this funereal tone for the bulk of its nearly 30 minutes, with only closing song "Never Did" suggesting even the faintest hint of acceptance or comfort.

Many of the album's primary concerns are familial, and references to fathers, mothers and sisters can be found in nearly every song. The recurring figure of Mary is encouraged to write to her brother "every night until he recovers," while the central image of "When" is that a woman holding her daughter in her arms. "Lookout, Lookout" plays out like a particularly dismissive elegy for someone who's presumably dead, as Hadreas says, "He will not be missed/ He didn't have a family to begin with." The portrait of the suicidal jumper and title character that emerges in "Mr. Petersen" - that of an older man who gives the narrator a Joy Division tape and lets him smoke weed in his truck "if I could convince him I loved him enough," as the narrator remembers - is ambiguous and can either be charitably viewed as paternalistic or something far more perverse.

Learning falters on occasion though, especially when Hadreas strays from the album's emphasis on minimalist arrangements and mostly discernible vocals. The hymn-like drone of "Gay Angels," as well as the submerged vocals of "No Problem" and "Perry," are atypical and distracting; for all of its lo-fi qualities, the album has all the markings of a traditional singer-songwriter release, where these songs only succeed when their content connects with the listener. These few flaws are enough to make Learning far less than the masterpiece it's been described as, but it is undoubtedly a disarming, introspective release filled with the types of raw emotions we usually keep to ourselves. Mike Hadreas makes these traumas public, giving us a glimpse into one man's struggles that aren't exactly pleasant to hear about but are also impossible to look away from.


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