The press release for Put Your Back N 2 It, the second release by Perfume Genius, aka singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas, suggests a lush, grand, intricately arranged version of his debut Learning. It would be a move typical of a lo-fi artist enjoying the rewards from a successful first outing. One listen to the album’s opener “AWOL Marine,” however, reveals that Hadreas may be recording with better equipment but he isn’t exactly writing crowd-pleasing anthems now. The song is built from the same two ingredients Hadreas thrived on initially: delicate piano and his world-weary, yet ingenuous voice. There’s the addition of what sounds like a string accompaniment (although it could just as easily be a synth pad) and the song is eventually swallowed by white noise, but these feel like very natural embellishments to Hadreas’ sound.
Even the song that follows, “Normal Song,” which, contrary to anything we’ve heard from Handreas up until this point, is based around a plucked guitar refrain rather than his trusty piano, has the distinct personality of a Perfume Genius song. Truth be told, this familiarity comes as a bit of a relief; part of Hadreas’ allure was the starkness of his confessions. Clouding them with too many bells and whistles could have been detrimental. In short, Hadreas utilizes excellent judgment in exercising his newfound freedom in the studio. He even manages to make the cheap drum machine and synth strings that support “Floating Spit” feel right at home in his brief catalogue.
One of the most notable changes on PYBN2I is in the album’s inclusion of several gospel-tinged ballads. On songs like “Take Me Home” and “Hood,” the influence of the genre is unmistakable, and it’s an influence that rarely, if ever, played a part on the debut. On first listen, it feels as though Hadreas is leaning too heavily on melodies that are a bit too tried and true on these entries. Eventually, however, they prove to be some of the real highlights on the record, giving the greatest focus to Hadreas’ powerful voice. And since his voice is given a chance to shine a bit more in general this time around due to the cleaner production, it turns out to be a great fit.
Hadreas spends much of PYBN2I dispensing broad statements that are quite a bit more vague than the striking detail he laid out on Learning, but his verses can still hit with great impact. There is a casual vulnerability about him. As he reveals troubling details like “the hands of God are bigger than grandpa’s eyes but still he broke the elastic on your waist,” you can’t help but feel for crushed for the victim of the song even if we don’t quite get clear picture of what is really going on here. Songs like “Mr. Peterson” off his debut gave you pointedly, specific particulars; here you have to work a little harder to put together the picture, even if Hadreas’ tone is definitely pointing you in the right direction.
Given the manner in which he exposes himself over the course of his albums coupled with his unique tenor, comparisons to Antony Hegarty are inevitable, and to a degree, apt. The two share a comparable outsider spirit, even if their approaches are quite different. Hadreas relies much more on the characters around him than Antony does. When he offers to minimize himself to “be like a shadow of a shadow of a shadow for” someone he cares about in “Take Me Home,” it serves as a fitting summary of how he tends to present himself; limited in his ability to help those around him by his own broken spirit, but not without plenty of empathy for them. Hadreas tackles these feelings with a unique perspective, one that he’s managed to once again distill into a powerful half an hour.
Video: Perfume Genius – “Hood”