WE KNOW EVERYTHING about Mike Hadreas. The drugs, the rehab, the stint at his mother's home outside of Seattle, the songs he wrote there, and how the music he made under the Perfume Genius name—as unassuming as it first was—led to a pair of record deals, one global (UK label Turnstile Music) and one domestic (Matador Records). But to know this—it's hard to avoid, seeing how these stories are placed front and center in both his bio and in each and every fawning review Perfume Genius receives—is less part of the generational shift toward over-sharing, and more part of a resigned acceptance that the unflinching nature of Hadreas' life is naturally intertwined with the music he creates.
"I think people want to paint something a lot more tragic or doomed than it actually is," the soft-spoken Hadreas explains. "I don't want it to seem like I've been through more than most people, but maybe I talk about it more."
His avenue for this discussion lies in Perfume Genius' Learning, the debut recording from this still-evolving musical endeavor. There is a stolen-diary intimacy to Learning, one only heightened by Hadreas' trembling voice atop a barren instrumental backdrop. His musical peers—Sufjan Stevens and Rufus Wainwright are the first that come to mind—keep a similar tempo and restrained level of volume, but the deeply personal nature that permeates Learning is hard to shake. This is a recording that is as frail as a fallen leaf, a rare moment of artistic expression built on an unwavering sense of sheer vulnerability. Learning opens with a self-titled track—fittingly the first song Hadreas ever composed, doing so on his mother's piano after his time in recovery—and its opening line of "No one will answer your prayers/'til you take off that dress" reflects the exposed fears of Hadreas, a feeling that constantly recurs throughout the ethereal Learning.
In "Mr. Peterson," the most devastating moment on a record full of emotionally overwhelming ballads, Hadreas sings of a very real student/teacher relationship—one that lacks the Lolita crush of "Don't Stand So Close to Me" or the comical lust of "Hot for Teacher." Instead the song builds on lines like "He let me smoke weed in his truck/if I could convince him I'd loved him enough," before finally spiraling toward its tragic conclusion, "He made me a tape of Joy Division/He told there was a part of him missing/When I was 16/he jumped off a building." This blunt impact quickly segues to the gossamer soft "Gay Angels," which gently floats about like a long-lost Sigur Rós offering, before Hadreas utters the only audible words of the song, "It's okay."
All of this is coupled with his well-published black eye photo, the most striking promotional shot since Andrew WK took a brick to his face for the cover of I Get Wet. It's fitting. The music of Learning is as bruised and battered as the shiner that resides on its creator. The Perfume Genius songs performed live share the raw intimacy of their recorded brethren, although following a well-received European tour, Hadreas has grown more comfortable under the spotlight.
"I think my first show ever, I had a sober blackout... I was so nervous. I just wanted to get through it and not let my nerves get to me. I slowly keep doing it and I'm getting a little more comfortable being uncomfortable, I guess," says Hadreas. "You have all this crap built up in your head around something, and you just sit with it so long that when you actually do it, it's still hard, but you survive."