Sometimes the personal can’t help but be political, when the way you choose to express yourself ends up taking a social stance, whether you mean it to or not. That’s one way to describe what Perfume Genius’s Mike Hadreas faces up to when making music, as the kind of artist who transforms his most private and intimate reflections into something much more. So while Hadreas has gotten the most attention for his unflinching accounts of sex and the psychological complications that come with it, his second album Put Your Back N 2 It touches what’s more essential and not so sensational about his songs’ subject matter, appealing to a broader human condition by embracing his specific experiences as a gay man. Hadreas articulates how a yearning for belonging and acceptance can go hand-in-hand with maintaining what makes each individual unique, seeking out what people have in common while appreciating the differences that define us all.
Hadreas makes you ponder these deeper issues about identity and social norms by working with something everyone’s familiar with — the love song. More precisely, Hadreas gets his point across by remaking what’s taken for granted as a love song, leading you to think again about what counts as one and whose stories it can tell. Part of the way he challenges those conventions is by putting his perspective and desires up front, without mincing any words over writing songs about porn (“AWOL Marine”), body image issues (“17”), and sex (the title track) on Put Your Back N 2 It. While it’s easy to emphasize the provocative content of Perfume Genius’s music, a number like “Put Your Back N 2 It” is compelling because it hits you on so many fronts, from the moving way Hadreas’ fuzzy confessional pop tugs at your heartstrings when his boyfriend faintly traces his main vocal lines, to its intellectual exercise of unraveling the ideologies built into the straight love song. The elegiac “No Tears” gets you to puzzle over the interplay between Hadreas’ thin falsetto and the deep, gruff voice that both interrupts and complements his own, giving new meaning to the cliché that opposites attract by creating its own sense of beauty in the contrasting tones and textures.
Take “Hood” as the most obvious example of how Perfume Genius works on many levels at once. Even though the video featuring porn performer Arpad Miklos — which includes scenes that got the trailer for the album censored by YouTube for what Google calls “non family safe material” — is what folks are talking about, what really stands out is a sense of tenderness and fragility that belies what appears to be scandalous, as Hadreas, accompanied by haunting piano chords, gives voice to the vulnerabilities that apply to pretty much any relationship (“You’d never call me baby / If you knew the truth / Oh, but I waited so long / For your love”). Matching the striking, stylized images of the video to the universal sentiments of the lyrics, Hadreas pushes his audience to rethink their expectations of what love and love songs are, putting those categories in flux and making them more inclusive in the process.
Although such expressions are probably most powerful on individual terms, Hadreas uses his most private situations to take on social taboos without ever coming off as preachy. A good case in point is the stirring “All Waters”, which goes into Hadreas’s mind as he walks the street with his boyfriend wanting nothing more than to be able to go hand-in-hand with him without feeling self-conscious, depicting a small, touching moment that comes to mean more than that in a social sense. As Hadreas longs for the day when “I can hold your hand / On any crowded street / And hold you close to me”, to a slowly shifting sheet of synth noise that crescendos into something like an epiphany, he isn’t just daydreaming — he’s helping to make what he imagines come true by making his desires heard. It’s a song that’s as defiant as it is poignant, as Hadreas gets the listener to empathize with him, exposing in turn the hypocrisies and double standards of what’s deemed acceptable acts of romance and affection. That’s how the personal becomes political on Put Your Back N 2 It, as the social commentary of “All Waters” shows that excluding some people from feeling like they truly belong only reveals the similarities of the wants and hopes we share, which is what makes the track both sad and uplifting.
So while the questioning quality of Perfume Genius’s work certainly sets it apart from that of even the most self-aware singer-songwriters, it’s the way Hadreas longs for and paints a more open and open-minded world that makes his vision unique. Using the lingua franca of minor chords to convey heartaching longing, just in a new vernacular, Put Your Back captures that universal feeling love songs tap into, only to expand the scope of what and whose experiences are accounted for. That also means he addresses love in all its romantic and platonic manifestations. The old-timey closer “Sister Song” is about the communal feeling of keeping a light on and seat warm for a friend who’s off searching for himself, while, on “Dark Parts”, Hadreas reaches out to share all that’s happened to him in order to bear the pain of whomever he’s addressing — be it a friend, significant other, or even a stranger in need — when he sings, “I will take the dark part / Of your heart into my heart”. And whether you want to take the title ironically or straight, “Normal Song” basically redefines what “normal” means as Hadreas embraces the marginalized characters that he tells about. To a simple waltzy strum, Hadreas tries to “comfort the girl” and “comfort the man” alike, teaching them from the lessons of his own struggles that “No secret / No matter how nasty / Can poison your voice / Or keep you from joy”. On “Normal Song”, Hadreas shows that dealing with the past for the future isn’t a case of wiping the slate clean, but of coming to terms with yourself with all strings attached.
If there’s a shortcoming to Put Your Back N 2 It, it’s that the songs can sometimes feel too brief, almost begging to be stretched out and further developed. Then again, you can’t really ask much more of Hadreas, considering that he seems to put every ounce of himself into his densely packed compositions and probably has nothing left to give. Although the trials and tribulations Hadreas writes about don’t always make for an easy listen, his music has an idealistic dimension to it, envisioning the best of all worlds where he can try to touch everyone without having to be anyone but himself. Maybe that kind of society is not yet a reality, but it takes artists who are transforming their self-consciousness into a social conscience — like Hadreas — to push that difficult process forward.