While sophomore albums always present some level of difficulty, a debut album like Perfume Genius’ Learning seems particularly tricky to follow-up. Learning offered a fair amount of pleasure just based on the immediacy of the home-sounding recording style and the quivering voice of Mike Hadreas that announced “hey, I’m being fuckin’ honest right now,” but it is almost impossible to separate the backstory behind the album from the actual recorded material once you are privy to Hadreas’ life events, which went from years of drug abuse and self-destruction to a clean break from his dangerous lifestyle through isolating himself in his mother’s home, producing his first songs as a way to deal with the past. Put Your Back N 2 It, the follow-up to Learning, stares at the task at hand and refuses to blink, proving that Hadreas’ charms extend beyond the scope previously seen, allowing the songwriter to successfully leave the safe confines of his bedroom project and match its intimacy in a big studio, while adding enough elements to create an entirely new listening experience.
Narratively, Put Your Back N 2 It is not a major departure for Perfume Genius. Sure, the Ice Cube-referencing title may be an intentional red herring and the opening piano lick in “AWOL Marine” that sounds like “Memory” from the musical Cats may be an unintentional red herring, but there are not a lot of laughs to be had when spending time with a Mike Hadreas record (except maybe the Learning b-side “Dreeem”). Drug addiction returns as a theme, and the album also deals with prostitution, death, and insecurity. Still, Put Your Back N 2 It never mopes. It never drags the listener down to the dark places that much of Hadreas’ material comes. In fact, it is never really difficult to listen to. While there are utterly heartbreaking moments throughout, they are usually balanced with enough optimism and hope to make every tear a little easier to swallow.
Take “Dark Parts,” a song written for Hadreas’ mother and discussing an incident with her father, saying “he broke the elastic on your waste, but he’ll never break you,” all over light percussion and delicate, almost whimsical piano strokes. The song doesn’t marinate in its sorrow, but, rather, approaches anthemic levels in its conviction. Thus, when the song shifts to its meditative conclusion, in which Hadreas declares that he will “take the dark parts of your heart into [his] heart,” the listener is still not quite prepared for the emotional rawness that is present. With such devastating material, the element of surprise would seemingly be tough to come by, but somehow Hadreas does this throughout the album.
Aiding this unpredictability are the varying of arrangements on Put Your Back N 2 It. For the first time, Hadreas is clearly not alone in the recording, whether it’s the first guitar that we hear on the waltz “Normal Song” to the drums acting not just as backing but a bonafide focal point on “Take Me Home.” Hell, the second verse of “Hood” offers a show-stopping moment where the percussion transforms the entirety of the Perfume Genius project into something I doubt anyone could foresee. Perfume Genius sounds at that moment like an actual band, revealing a potential that makes Put Your Back N 2 It so exciting. Each direction and meticulously-placed element on the album, from the paper-light synth lead on “Floating Spit” to the perfectly-timed falsetto at the peak of “All Waters,” glimmers with promise that we might be witnessing the development of one of contemporary music’s most promising young artists.
While I could praise a number of aspects of Put Your Back N 2 It, from how the songs borderline on painfully brief without feeling incomplete to the little turns of phrase that stick with the listener long after the record stops spinning (“Take Me Home”‘s “I’ll be so quiet for you / look like a child for you / be like a shadow of a shadow of a shadow for you” is so vivid I feel like it’s burned onto my consciousness), it is the bravery of the album that is its greatest triumph. Let’s be honest here: we still live in a country where most states would think it is wrong for Mike Hadreas to marry his boyfriend, in a world where some places would arrest Hadreas for fucking his boyfriend. Sure, there exists plenty of art about being gay, but it hardly exists in the popular consciousness, and Hadreas is unflinchingly honest when presenting a gay suicide note (the painfully beautiful “17”) or a tune literally about gay sex (the title track). And sure, this is brave, but this is not the bravery I am getting at. If you have heard Hadreas speak about his art, you would quickly realize that he is just as terrified about life as any vulnerable, self-conscious person that you would meet. The bravery I am talking about is getting past that and producing art that actually has a goal to somehow make people going through similar circumstances know they are not alone; yeah, this is art that has as much intent to help the artist get through his own issues as it has to help the audience. It is not likely to be easy for people with any prejudice to swallow, and where this album is not necessarily “for” them, it could conceivably be a bridge to humanize a portion of our society that is enigmatic to most. And, at worst, even if it just appeals to a niche of young music fans that probably don’t need a change on their perspective, these folks will be rewarded by an album that strives to not only be great musically, but to also be admirable in its message.
Put Your Back N 2 It is a success on both fronts.