It’s another election year and the country reels once again from the totally puzzling horror of dudes kissing, and so Mike Hadreas’ second album as Perfume Genius Put Your Back N 2 It is born under a difficult sign. An artist of deep earnestness and confessional nerve who is gay and writes songs about it, Hadreas collects comparisons based more on his identity than his musical instincts; the Stephin Merritt connection is a particularly red herring. Notorious for his advice to young songwriters (“Don’t come out”) and general misanthropy, Merritt writes ingenious, wry, deadpan, and evasive songs, their apparent romantic settings camouflaging how little personal sediment they actually hold. All of this is rivers and mountains away from Hadreas’ territory. Put Your Back N 2 It pleads as much felt experience out of its spare, abbreviated songs as it can, alternately withering and seamed with something like hope.
Hadreas will disappoint anyone expecting a Hercules and Love Affair party album out of the curiously titled Put Your Back N 2 It, but like the figures in his bleak, searing songs, he disappoints beautifully. His theatres of romantic transaction, struggle and freedom play out between a few piano chords, strings, bass drum and his own quavering voice. Without Hadreas’ strength as a lyricist, many of these songs might seem constricting in their limited harmonic structure. But his precision and discipline prove that this is by design. He wants us to feel the cage. On “AWOL Marine,” Hadreas fixes one perfect image with an economy almost unheard of in pop music, “AWOL Marine/ Turn toward the camera/ slowly,” before surrendering it to whatever gale force bookends the song. Early highlight “17” nails the cavernous feeling of the year, the feeling of being not just this, but superimposes it on the reality of confinement. “This ripe, swollen shape…” Hadreas sings, “I want deep space.”
That space, and a body to grow into it, happens by inches on Put Your Back N 2 It, but it happens. Light starts to seep through on “Hood,” the Morrissey cribbed couplet “You could never call me baby/ If you knew me truly” giving way to “I wish I grew up the second I first held you in my arms” and a buoyant piano line that gives the album a much needed shot in the arm. Put Your Back N 2 It is exhausting, only rarely shaking itself out of a plodding, confessional mode. Less a chameleon than Morrissey, less a spectacle than Zola Jesus, and less manic than Xiu Xiu, Perfume Genius can seem just lesser. But now that both high profile and obscure artists are putting on all these masks trying to rehearse last decade’s tensions, there should be a space for Hadreas’ direct lyricism, though irony and humor shouldn’t be bad words either. Stephin Merritt’s songs were always a lot of fun.
3.5 / 5 bars
Mike C. lives in Brooklyn and is trying to find a way to convert poetry to US currency. You can find more of him at http://certainblues.wordpress.com/.