When I was at university my friend and I would play each other music constantly, usually accompanied by a Super Nintendo, a worn copy of Mario Kart and countless rolled up cigarettes. We had this running joke where every so often one of us would put on Grandaddy’s ‘Underneath the Weeping Willow’, leading us to engage in various stages of mock grief, staunching the imaginary tears that coursed down our cheeks. Of course, this wasn’t the only song that brought about such a reaction, and it wasn’t really a joke as such; more us amusing ourselves while tacitly recognising its parent album The Sophtware Slump as one of the saddest and most beautiful of the previous decade.
The promotional materials for Perfume Genius' Learning show the project's sole member, 26-year-old Seattle resident Mike Hadreas, shirtless and with a black eye. It's as evocative an image as the Strokes wearing leather jackets and Velvet Underground t-shirts or Animal Collective wearing tribal masks. The songs on Hadreas' full-length debut are eviscerating and naked, with heartbreaking sentiments and bruised characterizations delivered in a voice that ranges from an ethereal croon to a slightly cracked warble. The production value is lo-fi, although not in a staticky, antagonistic way. Instead, the crude recording adds intimacy, to the point where you can hear Hadreas' feet on the pedals of the piano that plays a central role in many of his songs. This music sounds personal.
Little is known about what caused 26-year-old Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, to leave New York and head back to Seattle to live with his mum. But his debut album, Learning, gives a fair indication that his experiences were pretty bleak. Learning is an unremittingly sad record, one that almost suffocates the listener with its own melancholia; and yet there's also something strangely inspirational in its 10 piano-led hymns to failing and trying again.