Learning, the debut outing by Perfume Genius, is a rare paradox: an album that is swimming in its creator’s compelling back story and yet seems to have sprung out of nowhere. By now, anyone who has heard the record has undoubtedly been intrigued enough to seek out the biographical details of the band’s lone member, 20-something Seattleite Mike Hadreas, who returned to his mother’s home to record the album after a misspent, self-destructive youth. Though he is vague on the exact details — intimating either personal experiences with or direct observations of drug addiction, abuse and suicide — Learning bears the distinct weight of a young life spent in a too-close proximity to any number of horrors. Additionally, with no real scene attachments or hype-building precedents, Perfume Genius’s insularity is truely a rarity in today’s everything-is-connected musical landscape. You don’t need to have done any homework to appreciate this album; you simply have to listen to it.
With Hadreas’ frail, plaintive vocals to the sparse piano that is often his sole musical accompaniment, Learning manages to feel even more barren than even the most lo-fi of home recordings. This actually has little to do with the presence of any of the usual varieties of sonic abrasions that tend to mark such things — Learning is a much cleaner sounding album than something like The Tallest Man On Earth’s determinately gritty The Wild Hunt, for example — but rather, the persistently wounded tone of his singing and playing. Though we obviously know better, Learning feels less like an album recorded in the comfort of a bedroom, or even a garage, than a self-made cassette tape discovered amidst the possessions of an asylum inmate who somehow, at one point, had access to a piano and a tape recorder.
I’ve already indicated what kind of subject matter Learning contains, and you’d be right to assume that this is no easy listen, but what makes this music so startling is not what it’s about, but rather how it is about it. Where a typical novice cursed with the same set of experiences might have formed these songs into searing first-person confessionals, Hadreas sketches them in the detached manner of short fiction, albeit short fiction of the most fragmented and elliptical sort. The effect is not one that, as may be expected, keeps the listener at a distance from the material, but instead draws us in closer by shrouding them in the kind of mystery that leaves us with just enough detail to imagine how the blanks might be filled in. This often results in songs that wind up somehow even more harrowing than what the lyrical scraps he gives us suggest on their own. The already-troubling refrain of “Lookout, Lookout” warns “there are murders about” in what begins as a story of a girl trying to overcome her family’s debased reputation, but ends with the sharp turn of “Brian’s face down/keep your wits/he will not be missed/he didn’t have a family to begin with”. Likewise, the nursery-rhyme-like (and all the more unsettling for it) “Write To Your Brother” pulls a similar sleight-of-hand, beginning as one story with “Mary, you should write to your brother/every night until he recovers” before veering off into “tell him Mom treats you like a lover/that you have to hide all the mouthwash from her”. The implication seems to be that things are not only as bad as they first appear in Hadreas’ stories, but actually worse.
Still, Hadreas never seems to be simply wallowing in gloom here. Displaying an almost brilliant economy with his words, he occasionally sprinkles his stories with enough extraneous detail to suggest a life for these characters beyond their ultimate fates. Things certainly don’t end well for the titular “Mr. Peterson”, a pedophile high school teacher who throws himself off a building, but as one object of the teacher’s affections, the narrator remembers such incidents as “he let me smoke weed in his truck” and “he made me a tape of Joy Division” with an affection that, however misguided and tragic, nevertheless paints the speaker as something more than simply a victim. Elsewhere, the title track begins with what seems like one character’s certain doom with the horrifying “No one will answer your prayers until you take off that dress/No one will hear all your crying until you make your last breath” before backhandedly reassuring her with “you will to survive me”. Not a happy ending in the slightest, but allowing the character a future, however fraught, feels like a step towards something.
Where Learning is less successful, though, is on the moments where Hadreas tries to expand his music somewhere beyond his captivating formula. Sounding a bit like a Sigur Ros demo slowed down to a dirge, the ethereal “Gay Angels” gets lost in its own instrumental drone, his own vocals inaudible amidst the oppressive murk. In fact, whenever Hadreas lets his sonic dabblings obstruct his voice, the whole song tends to suffer as a result, which is particularly frustrating on something like synth-heavy “No Problem” where the music obscures the lyrics to such a degree that it becomes a strain to make out what is going on in any of it. So, while for all of his precocious talent, Hadreas hasn’t yet learned how to properly balance his competing impulses yet. This is only significantly harmful due to the album’s scant running time (Learning’s 10 songs clock in at only 29 minutes), allowing the stumbles to take up too great a portion of the whole. If this ends up marking Learning as more of a promising first outing than an outright triumphant one, though, what is good here is still more than enough to mark Mike Hadreas as an original and important new voice in American independent music.