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Perfume Genius‘s Put Your Back N 2 It stands alongside Pet Sounds as an album that, while melodically memorable (exceedingly) and theoretically repeatable (exceedingly), can’t be listened to casually and ought to be played in moderation. I break out Pet Sounds no more than a couple times a year, because no matter how much it bolsters my belief in truth and beauty, it ultimately reduces me to a state of trembling. Does the species really need albums as great and vulnerable as these, albums that give their makers to us so completely? Shouldn’t our survival instinct guard against music that weakens the body even as it strengthens the soul? Well, I don’t know, I’ve always had a tendency to turn away from great things and save them for later, for fear of wearing them out or wearing myself out.
As you might have guessed from this rant, Put Your Back N 2 It is, like Pet Sounds, an album about love. But, I hasten to add, sort of its inverse, as Mike Hadreas (the man behind Perfume Genius) in 2012 and Brian Wilson in 1966 each want what the other one has. On “All Waters,” one of N 2 It’s biggest moments finds Hadreas imagining a time “when I can take your hand on any crowded street and hold you close to me with no hesitating,” an echo of the way Wilson could think of nothing nicer than to, “after having spent the day together, hold each other close the whole night through.” When they’re not making wishes, Hadreas owns the private neverending, and Wilson the public display. God only knows what makes Hadreas render so softly the desires that Wilson fully orchestrates, whether it’s his personality or some aspect of his situation, but his music strikes me as equally celebratory.
His 2010 debut Learning was similarly overwhelming in a way that sometimes made you want to hold it at a distance, but in the wake of N 2 It’s power, the first album’s title reads like a description of its quality as much as a description of its origin. It found Hadreas testing whether he could use music in any meaningful way, coming up with compelling but patchwork solutions to autobiographical problems. The new title is descriptive too, but isn’t meant to signify Hadreas laboring into the world of rock ‘n’ roll, or anything like that. The sonic expansions are subtle but impressive enough to suggest that “learning” was a one-time deal, that Hadreas has found his mode of expression and intends to apply it rigorously.
If Learning assembled simple melodic lines—playful, melancholy, direct—into tiny hymns, N 2 It expands them further into miniature ballads, and the mode of the songs here is so consistent but malleable that it could probably be called the advent of a new form. But the greatest development is in Hadreas’ voice, which has taken on a courageous beauty (see his falsetto on “Take Me Home”), where formerly it was as fragile as the carefully plucked piano that attempted to buoy it. And while the lo-fi fog that shrouded Learning never bespoke timidity on the part of Hadreas (it seemed rather that he was attempting to draw the listener further into his world), N 2 It mostly clears it away and can’t be accused of the slightest remoteness. Its cleanly articulated piano and guitar (!) and voice are rarely surrounded by anything more than the softest sibilance, with Hadreas working toward crystalline, but by no means slick, production. Compare the soft layers of synths that contain “All Waters” with the more decayed swarm of Learning’s “Gay Angels,” and it’s clear how much closer Hadreas has come to the lonely, triumphant place of Sinéad O’Connor‘s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” A lot of his music plays like a dilation of that song’s slow seduction.
And yet he doesn’t take refuge in his songs; he removes himself as soon as they allow it. I’ve already heard it said that N 2 It’s songs are too short, that the part on “Hood” where the drums kick in, for example, is begging to be extended, but at just over half an hour, the new album feels like the perfect length to me. Some will argue that Hadreas’s absolute refusal to oversell or overextend a moment (see: The white noise that ends “AWOL Marine,” cutting out suddenly even as it’s still accumulating) keeps his songs from being fully developed, but I’d say this stubbornness is his greatest advantage as a songwriter, that the shortness of Learning has become codified and undeniable. After all, even our favorite songs quickly become artifacts of the mind’s ear: We spend more time thinking about them or playing them in our heads than we do actually listening to them. Hadreas takes advantage of this fact. You can hear the climactic moment of “Hood” once, in all its brevity, and it might echo in you for the rest of the day. The song can’t be any longer than the moment, the epiphany, that inspired it, is synonymous with it, in fact.
So, “Hood” has been echoing through me these past weeks, but most omnipresent in my mind since I heard it is “Floating Spit,” beauty among beauties, simple in its construction but functioning as a sort of composite of all the pop music that’s ever sustained me. There’s nothing novel in its attempt to conjure the impression of a song as heard from across a bedroom or in the backseat of a car, thus implying the character who’s listening to it, but the effect of close, infinite space, a feat of production, has never been so perfectly rendered. Maybe Hadreas ought to go into soundtrack work. In fact, the song recalls the unaffected directness of the “Just You & I” musical number from Twin Peaks, a show whose greatest mysteries were not found in the Red Room but in the pain and brief perfection of its love affairs.
Some will listen to Put Your Back N 2 It and know that this is what love sounds like; some will say love sounds like something else; some will say love doesn’t exist in the realm of sound, or at all. I’m not usually defensive about albums I love, I just don’t want Hadreas’s achievement here to go unnoticed.
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