One of the many high points in 2010’s musical landscape came in the form of Perfume Genius’ Learning. Acting as a nom de musique for Seattle songwriter Mike Hadreas, the début presented a record of songs that possessed such a degree of fragility and taut brittleness that it at times felt like an album that could potentially implode under the weight of its own devastating emotion. The fact that it was made using only swathes of piano and Hadreas’ voice made it all the more staggering; there being no trickery of studio polish meant the songs had to stand up on their own merit. The fact that by year’s end only The Antlers‘ equally tumultuous Hospice matched it in the raw-to-the-point-of-heartbreaking songwriting spoke volumes.
For their last album The Antlers chose not to simply retread past glories, but instead to subtly reinvent themselves for last year’s equally brilliant Burst Apart. So it is with Perfume Genius’ newest offering, Put Your Back N 2 It. The first thing to note is the more varied instrumentation used compared to its predecessor, thus eliminating the only minor complaint Learning faced, of at times feeling too stark, and bordering on the samey over the course of the album. Instead, in come flecks of guitar and, in the case of No Tear and the lost ’50s ballad of Take Me Home, a full band. It all points to a much more accomplished overall sound, culminating in the haunting All Waters and the otherwordly, majestic Floating Spit.
The more polished, complete production that has turned Hadreas’ compositions from glorified (but no less effective) bedroom vignettes into something far more widescreen shouldn’t detract from Hadreas’ skills as a wordsmith. With Put Your Back N 2 It, as with its predecessor, laughs are not the order of the day, as evidenced by Normal Song’s “Hold my hand/ I am afraid/ Pray for me”, before, in the same song, moving onto the tragic “Comfort the girl/ Help her understand”. It surfaces notably again on Hood which, like Take Me Home, resembles a lost ballad of times long gone, but carries the menacing message of “You would never call me baby if you knew the truth”. Hadreas’ voice comes across as far more powerful and assured than the distorted, affected instrument depicted on his previous work, at times sounding uncannily like a frail and tormented Paul Simon and showing a genuine development.
The second Perfume Genius album demonstrates that Hadreas is a staggeringly talented songwriter, with Put Your Back N 2 It showcasing an array of songs as deceptively simple as they are jaw-droppingly powerful. With an overall feel that suggests an ever-growing sense of confidence and belief in his compositions, it presents an intriguing picture of where he may go in future. But for now, this – and its all encompassing swathes of majestic melancholia – will do rather handsomely.