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On Second Listen: Perfume Genius – Learning

on September 25, 2010, 8:00am

For someone I’d never heard of two weeks ago, Perfume Genius has a wealth of written material discussing the finer points of his debut album, Learning. In fact, the same points are repeated over and over again. Which, to be honest, is slightly discouraging, especially when I was expecting a haunting, intimate, devastating, and ultimately redemptive masterpiece I heard after my first listen.

Those first impressions were correct, but also obvious. So, I will spare you the drawn-out, space-filling history or the paragraph-long explanations of why he is similar to and possibly better than some of the classic singer/songwriters of the last quarter century. Instead, I will direct you to Matador where you can hear the whole story with all the quotes from the songwriter’s own mouth.

Mike Hadreas is Perfume Genius in the way Bill Callahan is Smog. It’s a one-man project hidden under a band moniker, the irony being that Learning may be the most personal record imaginable, almost uncomfortably so. Hadreas, in his mid-twenties, is not a musical prodigy, noting in interviews that he had always played piano but hated his voice. After many years of living wild and dangerously, he moved home and spent a year crafting this album. In it are the characters and life that he left behind. Also in the record are the difficulties in coming to terms with being a young gay man and a portrait of family relationships disintegrating over time.

Not light subject matter, by any means, but it’s also not removed enough in years to buffer any immediacy, as these stories usually are. Interestingly, the record was recorded chronologically, with “Learning” being the first song he wrote and so on. So within his first record, you can literally hear Hadreas grow as a songwriter, where he has drawn numerous comparisons to Sufjan Stevens in vocals, Daniel Johnston in recording style, and Elliott Smith in the utter sadness involved.

Something that he shares with all those artists is intimacy. The intimacy that comes second hand because of the personal nature of the lyrics, and it grabs you within the first minute of the record. Regardless of your sexual orientation or attitude toward drugs, you can relate to Perfume Genius because the truth allows the point being conveyed to ring with just as much truth, if not more. In fact, Hadreas noted that he thought his stories were universal and that anyone could relate to them despite the particularity of their nature.You have to come to Learning willing to be engaged and disregard any personal notions or bias. Otherwise, the album will surely fall flat.

“Mr. Peterson” is a great example, telling the story of a high school student who engages in an inappropriate relationship with a teacher of the same sex. The tendency of a listener may be to turn away from the explicit subject matter, but the subtext of the song reveals an uncomfortable truth. The speaker of the story doesn’t view the teacher as a monster. He paints a picture that is more sympathetic than judgmental.

The record is called learning, and this is a prime example of the learning that occurs. If you think about it, it’s more common for gay teens to engage in an affair with a much older person than for straight teens, and when you think about it, it holds logically. Straight kids all grow up on the same page and are free to explore their sexuality with any of their peers, being assured by the media and arts that surround them that their experiences are normal. But to be young and be gay, there are very few who are comfortable enough to approach a peer, much less find one that is willing. And these people grow up and become gay adults, who see kids going through a lonely and isolating coming-of-age that they experienced, and it’s not so difficult to understand where a bond could form and the idea of a teacher and student being in a sexual relationship could seem quite attractive to both parties.

Does this make Mr. Peterson any less of a shithead? Not really. But it explains why you could look back and not paint the man as a villain. I mean, the record is called Learning, and a whole lot of learning happens in the song, from lessons on Joy Division to examples on how to love. And finally, figuring out that the people we love aren’t necessarily there with the best of intentions. That is something we all can understand. Because for every broken heart I have suffered, a line like “I hope there is room for you up above or down below” just about sums up the confusion that emotions can create, where we don’t know whether to cast the loves that hurt us as angels or demons.

The other tales on the album contain a similar harshness, including a sister that is asked to write to her brother until he “gets better,” a favorite poem whose lyrics are sung as a haunting rather than joyful memory, and murder in the second track where the victim could be named at any moment. But the point of the record is not to show these awful things that Hadreas has witnessed. No, the point is to overcome the past, move on, and use all the ugliness to create something beautiful. For all its sadness, Learning is ultimately as gorgeous and precious as music is capable of being. And if you think of all the amazing things about humanity, isn’t our ability to survive and learn from our mistake the greatest? We’re at the top of the food chain because of our ability to react to our environment. We can take horror stories like Hadreas’ past life and not only grow personally, but also use them to teach others.

Hopefully, this record will find some struggling teenagers who think they will never be understood because they are different. Or anybody who needs to feel like overcoming their obstacles is possible and worth it. Hey, you never know, maybe there’s something for you to learn here, too.

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