Perfume Genius’ Put Your Back N 2 It is as much an exercise in therapy as it is Seattle-based musician Mike Hadreas’ follow-up to 2010’s Learning. Hadreas, whose work as Perfume Genius is built on an honesty that often translates as impossibly dark and depressive, uses his music as a pseudo-therapist’s office, wading his way through personal insecurities, histories, and ambitions over robust, graceful rhythms and melodies.
But his penchant for songwriting belies the fact that Hadreas had never penned a song until he was moved to write “Learning,” which became the titular opener of his first album, at the relatively late age of twenty-eight. Though he played piano for years as a child and often wrote poetry, Hadreas didn’t feel compelled to combine the two until he sobered up after years of excessive drinking and doing drugs, which saw him dropping out of art school—“I went to art school for painting for a year and I thought, well I don’t know what that means?” he says—to follow a boyfriend to New York.
When he moved back to the West Coast, getting clean allowed him to finally grow out of the teenage mindset he says he was locked into during those years of substance abuse, and the songs flowed freely. “I think I just had something to say that I wasn’t ashamed of,” he says. “When I got healthy, I felt like I saw the whole picture of things and I felt like I could talk about the things that happened to me in a more purposeful way instead of in a selfish way.”
The result was a beautiful, self-reflexive record, most of which was written and recorded while Hadreas secluded himself at his mother’s house in a Washington suburb. Like much of Learning‘s thematic content, its sounds are hazy and harrowing, often weaving between bleak and hopeful, even on a single song.
But after the record’s release, and the whirlwind of success that followed it, Hadreas slipped back into drinking, drug use, and what he describes as “general self-destruction,” sobering up only to write and record the songs that eventually became Put Your Back N 2 It. This time, however, the creative process proved more difficult.
“I thought in order to write, I had to recreate the same situation [as the first album],” he says, but renting a house to mimic the isolation that birthed Learning was ineffective. In the end, after finally being able to write songs he was proud of, Hadreas reached some conclusions of his own about art and creativity. “It’s the same kind of thing like when people think you need to be depressed or you can’t lose your sadness, because then you’re not going to be creative? I think that that’s not true,” he says. “And the longer I’m getting healthier, the more I’m realizing the opposite. That I can have friends and a boyfriend and a full life and still make things.”
And yet Hadreas has managed to figure out a way to address that sadness without invoking the tortured artist cliché. At their best, his songs are a marriage of haunting, powerful piano riffs and equally haunting and powerful lyrics. Hadreas’ skill for filling the pockets of sparse drumbeats and sharp piano melodies with pensive, well-crafted lyrics directly recalls his musical inspirations for the album, Otis Redding and Bob Dylan in particular and old soul and folk music in general.
On “Hood,” the first single from Put Your Back N 2 It, Hadreas sings, “You would never call me ‘baby’/If you knew me truly,” over a strong piano melody that builds tensely to full instrumentation. But for all the self-loathing it captures, the song’s final couplet is more hopeful than it sounds: “Oh but I waited so long for your love/I will fight baby not to do you wrong.”
Other songs, like the heartbreaking “17” and “AWOL Marine,” which Hadreas describes, respectively, as a “gay suicide letter” and a depiction of the “desperation, demoralization, and soullessness that come with addiction,” confirm that he has a gift for boiling specific narratives down to universal emotions so poignant it’s difficult to think you’re not being addressed personally.
But then, that’s kind of the point. “I want people to feel like it’s for them,” he says of the album. “I try to imagine I’m singing someone else’s story.”
Put Your Back N 2 It is out now on Matador Records.
Photography by Angel Ceballos.