Around a week after a family death, my wife and I made the mistake of going to a Perfume Genius concert.
That was about a decade ago when Mike Hadreas’ project was touring in support of the second album he’d released under the moniker: 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It. Of course, this would be why—for as much as I legitimately liked the LP upon arrival—my copy has remained on the shelf, organized within the other Ps and hidden from the light of day or the platter of my turntable for nearly ten years.
It’s an album inherently about trauma that I have been unable to disassociate from my own.
Perfume Genius arrived in 2010 with built-in mythology and a compelling backstory as a band or a project. Hadreas had moved back in with his mother at the time, and while working through his struggles with substance use, he began writing and recording the songs that would wind up on his debut, 2010’s Learning.
A part of this lore is challenging to retrace over a decade later. Perhaps it was better known at the time, but this part of Learning’s genesis has seemingly been scrubbed from the internet. Maybe it was just an urban legend, but the reason the album sounds the way it does—muffled, cavernous, and ethereal—was because it had been salvaged, remixed, and remastered from heavily compressed mp3s rather than any original high-quality recordings.
Something had happened to those originals, but what that something was had never been specified.
It is quite wild to think about Perfume Genius’s early, humble, home-recorded, and lo-fi beginnings. Likewise, it’s fascinating to consider where Hadreas has effortlessly pushed the project over the subsequent 12 years and four subsequent full-lengths that followed Learning. Today, his work is often theatrical, bombastic, and exponentially more elaborate in instrumentation and arranging. Thus, the days of Perfume Genius being something so insular—like the sound of someone trying desperately to whisper something to you through the wall between two rooms—are long gone.
Retrospectively, you can see Put Your Back N 2 It is where Hadreas began to develop more confidence and focus as a songwriter and performer. Or, it’s at least where his desire to start embracing additional sonic textures became evident. Seeing it as such isn’t exactly a reach, but it requires a little bit of thought from the listener. It is not an album that is indicative of where he would push things in sound and scope, but it is an album you can look at, especially now, as the point of transition.
Based on his Twitter presence, you could argue that Hadreas himself has a relatively good sense of humor, albeit dark and idiosyncratic at times. Apart from a single lyric that lingers from his third outing as Perfume Genius, 2014’s Too Bright—”No family is safe when I sashay,” from “Queen”—I am not sure if his sense of humor has found its way into his lyricism.
Outside of the title to Put Your Back N 2 It, which seems to reference the call and response refrain of Ice Cube’s “You Can Do It”, there is little humor in this collection of songs. Beautiful, though often spectral in both its arranging and in Hadreas’ vocals, Put Your Back N 2 It is extremely bleak. After all, it’s a record centered around unpacking the notions of sexual identity, addiction, physical abuse, and family trauma.
There’s a stark contrast as Put Your Back N 2 It opens. Musically, “AWOL Marine” contains a progression on the piano that is extremely beautiful—full of a kind of grand, romantic longing like it was pulled from an old film. However, that sweeping beauty is cruelly and intentionally juxtaposed against something unsettling and hideous.
The lyrics to “AWOL Marine” unfold, on the page anyway, like fragmented, ambiguous poetry. They’re loosely connected by a fraying thread that, while extremely vivid, requires a lot of imagination to piece together. Imagination, or knowledge of the inspiration for the song.
Like the Perfume Genius project itself, there is mythology or history surrounding “AWOL Marine”. It was inspired by Hadreas’ alleged viewing of some kind of homemade pornography in which one of the participants—presumably, the titular Marine— says on camera that he is only participating because he needs to get medication for his wife.
There is a discomfort in knowing that there is a video featuring someone at their most desperate who involves themselves in something they feel obligated to do.
But in that uneasy feeling, isn’t there also a creeping allure to it all?
That’s expressly true regarding the story behind the song and the mere suggestion of the existence of a video like that. It’s the kind of video you tell yourself you wouldn’t watch or that it is a “bad” thing. At the same time, though, would you turn away or shield your eyes if you were to see this homemade video? Or, would you be unable to pull yourself away, watching as the AWOL Marine turns toward the camera slowly?
The dichotomy struck right from the beginning of the album—the unease, the discomfort, and the allure speak to both the album as a whole and just the one song. It’s the way Hadreas walks the line between the beautiful and the subversive throughout Put Your Back N 2 It. The intimate “17“, from the album’s first side, is probably the best, or at least most obvious, example of that line.
The most impactful songs from Put Your Back N 2 It, or at least the most memorable or powerful a decade later, are those on which Hadreas unflinchingly addresses the trauma of others and his own. This dichotomy occurs most impactfully during an impressive and breathless run of three songs near the middle of the LP’s second side.
There is something both epic and sweeping about the rhythm of “Dark Parts”, especially when the percussion arrives. Also, the arranging on the piano is surprisingly jaunty or rollicking—the kind of descriptors you would maybe not associate with a Perfume Genius song, primarily when it concerns a song about child abuse.
Hadreas cannot help but show his hand in the title of “Dark Parts”, an ode to his mother that’s structured around the childhood abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. “The hands of God were bigger than grandpa’s eyes”, Hadreas sings against the frenetic progression of the piano keys as the song begins. “But still, he broke the elastic on your waist”.
“Dark Parks”, much like “AWOL Marine” and a number of the other tunes on Put Your Back N 2 It, works within a lyrical sparsity. Yet, Hedreas can convey so much through so little. He returns to that opening line in the song’s only other verse but slightly alters the second line: “But he’s long gone.”
The conceit of the track is admittedly horrific, but there’s tenderness, admiration, and affection for his mother in the way he reflects on her life individually and with him. “He’ll never break you, baby”, he sings during the refrain. Then, as “Dark Parts” takes a sudden shift in tone and tempo, Hadreas introduces the titular phrase in a lyrical afterward.
A bulk of Put Your Back N 2 It addresses Hadreas’ sexual orientation—at times, with that same tenderness he displayed on “Dark Parks”, towards his mother’s ultimate resiliency. Other times, however, it’s with an unnerving subversiveness. Again, he’s finding the contrast between discomfort, allure, and beauty.
“All Waters”, the first single released when the record was announced at the very end of 2011, is the most hopeful (or the least bleak) of the set. It’s percussion-less but not structureless, and it’s one of the moments on the album that floats. It’s also one of the moments where Hadreas creates a sense of tension that never really gets released. “All Waters” smolders in a bed of shifting, warm synthesizer tones that are as moody as they are, in the end, borderline triumphant. Meanwhile, the song’s lyrics deliberately and slowly tumble out, depicting a place and time when Hadreas no longer has to live in fear of homophobia when engaging in any kind of public display of affection with his partner.
This glimmer of hope isn’t overshadowed by the tonal shift when “All Waters” slides into the album’s second single, “Hood”, but there is a visceral redirect in sentiment. Musically, “Hood” is among the handful of tunes on Put Your Back N 2 It that are noticeably more uptempo or bombastic. “Take Me Home”, which is sequenced earlier in the album’s first side, is similar in its lyrical themes and its swaying momentum and pacing.
Upon its release as a single, “Hood” was a source of minor controversy because the video, subjectively tame in what it depicts, finds Hedreas in various interactions with adult film actor Arpad Miklos. At the time, YouTube deemed the video “unsafe” for families and originally rejected its publication on the site.
There was, and still is, something incredibly haunting and honest within the fragile way Hedreas delivers the first line: “You would never call me baby if you knew me truly.” Structurally, “Hood” simmers slowly and dramatically before it kicks into a jazzy cacophony in its second half. Here, Hedreas unpacks his insecurities about himself and his sexual identity. “Underneath this hood, you kiss,” he sings fittingly before the song detonates: “I tick like a bomb.”
I am uncertain if this is something artists still do because there has been such a shift between the era in which Put Your Back N 2 It released and how music is consumed in 2022. However, when streaming platforms were uncharted or in their infancy, the digital edition of an album—available to purchase and download—often contained an exclusive bonus track.
Put Your Back N 2 It featured two bonus exclusives: “Rusty Chains”, which was tacked on at the end of the album when downloaded through iTunes, and the harrowing “Katie”, which Amazon included with purchases.
Even with my inability to compartmentalize my connection to Put Your Back N 2 It, and Perfume Genius as a project effectively preventing me from listening to this record for over a decade, I still have portions of it that I think about regularly. “AWOL Marine” is one of them.
“Katie” is another. Perhaps as an indicator of the stranglehold Amazon has over its “exclusives” or simply an indicator of how obscure a B-side “Katie” is, YouTube has still not introduced the song’s studio version to broader audiences.
Of all the trauma or difficult things that Hardreas writes about and works through on Put Your Back N 2 It, “Katie” is undoubtedly the most graphic and, therefore, the hardest to hear. It is performed on a creaky, cavernous-sounding piano. There’s something mournful and soulful about the song’s arrangement, even though it opens somewhat brightly before Hedreas drags it down to the skeletal depths.
On “Dark Parts”, he unpacks the physical abuse his mother suffered at the hands of her father. Here, he paints an even bleaker portrait of the sexual abuse of a young woman perpetrated by her mother’s boyfriend. Told from the mother’s perspective, the most difficult part of “Katie” is that the mother is simply in denial of the accusations. “Katie, I don’t believe you, and that’s the bottom line,” Hadreas croons in the opening line. “How could this have gone on before my very eyes?”
As the song continues, there are conflicting emotions, with the mother figure on the cusp of accepting the truth while also being on the verge of showing remorse. It never reaches beyond that, though, which is a surprising songwriting or narrative device to employ. It’s also why this was such an impactful and chilling song when it was released, not to mention why it’s still so impactful and chilling now.
It’s in the way everything lingers and hangs in the air, and there is no resolution as everything works toward the fragile delivery of the final line: “To know I let that man into our home—not my baby, no Katie, not you.” The song just ends. As a listener, you are left holding your breath long after Hadreas’ voice and the final notes of the piano evaporate into the air.
Around a week after there was a death in the family, my wife and I made the mistake of going to a Perfume Genius concert. We’d bought the tickets long in advance, and I am certain that as the concert’s date approached, we considered just not going. Of course, not going would have meant another night at home, trying to avoid the house’s inescapable grief and oppressive silence.
Our companion rabbit died the week prior during a dental surgery that proved to be too much for his body to handle. Arriving at the vet’s office with a rabbit in a carrier and then leaving a few hours later with the same carrier—now empty—is a feeling difficult to articulate. It is something I have not been able to shake over the last ten years.
There was a surreal feeling in leaving our home to go to the concert; we were not used to the very notion there wasn’t someone at home waiting for us to return. It wasn’t a “freeing” feeling. I’m not sure what it was, but it didn’t feel good.
There is a power that certain music has over us, regardless of it is something that we regularly listen to or not. It has to find us, as listeners, at the right time. Put Your Back N 2 It is one of those albums. It’s representative of a particular time and place—for me, a trauma that I have avoided unpacking for a decade. But even outside of the personal connection you, or I, might have to this album, its themes are still relevant and resonate. In particular, the internalized and externalized homophobia and struggling to accept oneself.
It’s still an eerie but gorgeous album. It still walks and often blurs the line between being subversive and uncomfortable, and it’s always creeping in its allure.
Put Your Back N 2 It, at least the vinyl LP edition without “bonus tracks”, ends with the lullaby “Sister Song”. It’s the most delicate to be found. It isn’t hopeful, but there is a gentle reassurance that I have found myself returning to off and on over the last ten years. Simply in thought, as it was only recently that I unearthed my album copy, which had not seen the light of day for an entire decade.
Not unlike the ten years of trauma and grief that I have yet to process.
Hadreas describes the imagery in “Sister Song” as follows: “I was imagining someone leaving all the things in someone’s room the same after that person had died, or that they were going to rehab and their family and friends would hold down the fort while they were gone.”
It isn’t hopeful, but in that bittersweet reassurance, I have found myself returning, simply in thought, to the way he sings, “Drive on, drive on, my special one / Don’t you stop ’til you know you’re gone / Your sister and me will keep your place clean / So it shines when you finally come home.”