Even though he is only in his 20's, the story to date of one Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, has the peculiar twists and turns of a person who has lived through at least several lifetimes, and has seen rather more darkness than most. "I spent my whole life hiding from the things that happened to me, to my family and friends", Hadreas explains now. "The entirety of all these experiences: abuse, addiction, suicide...all that cool stuff. I couldn't bear to look at it".
Now, as Perfume Genius, Hadreas is not only turning an unforgiving mirror on those demons that have beset him, but somehow managing to make breathtaking, utterly heartbreaking music out of them. How this actually came to pass however, is far from conventional. For a number of years Hadreas himself admits that he was headed down the path of self oblivion; as he recalls, "I was running around doing drugs and being fucking insane and getting into some dangerous business". At his lowest ebb, and with the instability of his lifestyle threatening to overwhelm him entirely, Hadreas decided to make a clean break and moved back into his mother's house in Washington. It is here, in this suburban setting, that a self-imposed spell of complete isolation seemed to tap into a wellspring of dormant creativity. "I have always played the piano but was really embarrassed of my voice, so I never sang. But a few years ago, after spending a long time alone, I suddenly had something to say and my voice didn't matter". The watershed moment came one day when he sat down and wrote "Learning", which was to be his first song. Hadreas remembers it with vivid and piercing clarity. "I wrote it and spent at least a month after that constantly writing for long stretches of time. I do not know how it happened, but I intuitively could see and feel my experiences for the first time in this really overwhelming and honest state or whatever. I felt like my heart actually broke but in this sort of hopeful, genuine way. Like I could finally rebuild it".
The song in question is a ghostly shiver of fluttering beauty, a gorgeously sparse ballad with a simple, rippling melody, anchored by the bracing, ominous couplet "No one will answer your prayers/ till you take off that dress". It is simultaneously tender and haunting, exquisite and unsettling, and sets the stall perfectly for what's to follow: confessionals so stark and searing that the natural human instinct is almost to flinch, to look away, if not for the lushly heart rending music it's all set to. Listeners would already have gotten a taste with the February release of the debut single "Mr Petersen", which turned a seemingly innocuous tale of a high school teacher inside out, but it is with the forthcoming debut album, "Learning" entirely written and recorded during the year Hadreas sequestered himself in his mother's house that the world of Perfume Genius will finally be unveiled in all its majestic yet unstinting glory. "The songs on the album are the ones I think are the most real", Hadreas asserts. "And they are about everybody, you know? Even though some of them are directly from my experience - I always had everybody in mind". Indeed, there is a definite universality to the record which renders it brilliantly accessible, despite the intensely personal subject matter, from the poignant and spectral "You Won't B Here" and the twilight swoon of "When", to the strangely yearning "Write To Your Brother", with its elliptical allusions about a mother treating a son "like a lover".
However, the album also treads some very dark, tormented places indeed, especially when Hadreas swaps his piano for the doomy organs and layered synths of "Gay Angels" and "No Problem", both slowed down, sorrowful elegies that could easily have soundtracked the saddest David Lynch film ever made. "Look Out, Look Out", meanwhile, is simply harrowing, with Hadreas pleading "Look out, look out, there are murders about", although it is unclear as to who exactly he is warning; us or himself. Ultimately though, the album ends on a note of sheer, transcendental beauty with the hymnal atmospherics and crystalline notes of "Never Did", which sounds like he is singing to the heavens. It is a stirring finale, and one which crucially resists the thematic trap of casting Perfume Genius as a purveyor of doom and gloom. For, as much as "Learning" is often a catalogue of remembered pain and sadness, it is also about what it takes to get through it. Nothing is lost forever. Hadreas' own story is proof of that. And this record is an indelible testament to his strange, magnificent journey so far.