Fragmented, scrapbook recordings documented at his mother’s house, Mike Hadreas’ debut Learning is the kind of angst-ridden poetry that succeeds by being so shrouded in mystery and a tender incoherence that we are left intrigued rather than irritated. These lo-fi recordings echo the Woods, his vocals Sufjan Stevens’ girlish whisper and Neil Young’s pained falsetto.
Moving in with his mother in suburban Washington after various stints in rehab the cathartic and confessional tones that are Perfume Genius were recorded initially just with a computer and headset microphone. Little other else employed his echoy piano and synthetic strings spin webs around his vocals which often are so distorted and lost in the mix that only after multiple listens do the words reveal themselves. It’s an intimacy built and a trust formed between the songwriter and the patient listener that is greatly rewarded.
Gifted in many ways with the same introspective insight as a tormented teenage Conor Oberst his songs flit between the frank narrative of debut single “Mr Petersen” to the elegiac, hymnal tones of “Gay Angels” and minimal “No Problem”. The former tells of the relationship our confessor had with a teacher; its simplistic words, unadorned as they are leave little doubt that such accounts are sadly all but true:
He let me smoke weed in his truck/If I could convince him I loved him enough/Enough, enough, enough/He made me a tape of Joy Division/He told me there was part of him missing/When I was 16, he jumped off a building.
“No Problem” is an entrancing soundscape of few words, ebbing and flowing much like the slow motion underwater video accompaniment placed on YouTube. Both visually and musically it sums up the feeling of something teasingly drifting nearer before closing up like a clam and floating away. The whole album has that essence: confessions and sins that must be purged but in so quiet a manner that they are really just confessions – songs “of death and inadvisable sexual explorations” Hadreas tell us – to the self.
These haunting confessions are often aided by field recordings which muffle and crack like an ancient family video on projector. “When” is a perfect example and the murky, sepia synaesthesia it connotes, tinged at the edges with a celestial light harbouring a slight promise of hope or relief in revealing all of this, is something that runs throughout. By the close of the album “Never Did” certainly conforms to the notion that our experiences are “all part of his plan” and Learning is essentially a documentation of the journey to reach this realisation.
This might just be my favourite album of the year so far. Simplistic and wrought with a frail sensitivity, beneath its wispy layers of hushed vocals and swarming synth strings it is quietly courageous and oh so bold.
The 26-year-old from Seattle releases the LP on Turnstile Music on Monday 21st June. You can head to The Fader in the meantime where it is streaming in full: I challenge you not to be incredibly moved.