Reviewed by Brett Thorne.
Learning has to be one of the most unapologetically downer albums I have ever heard. I guess it’s no surprise, then, that the album’s creator, Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, hails from the haven of rain and sad thoughts that is Seattle.
But just because an album doesn’t make a great fit on your Summer 2010 Party Mix doesn’t mean it’s bad, right?
The tone of the album is enhanced by the production and engineering, which is virtually non-existent. It sounds like Hadreas could have recorded the entire album in his mother’s living room in one sitting (which is possible because the album was recorded at his mother’s house). His vocals sound distant and ethereal and the piano is sloshed in reverb.
Album-opener “Learning” sounds like the tale of an abusive father. The lyrics “No one will answer your prayers until you take off that dress / No one will hear your crying until you take your last breath / and you will learn to survive me,” don’t exactly leave the best aftertaste, but the emotion with which Hadreas sings gives the song a beauty like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It almost sounds like we’re overhearing a confession to a priest, a very private moment, but our desire for drama won’t allow us to stop listening.
The album’s stand-out track has to be “Mr. Petersen,” in which a few (mildly) upbeat piano chords carry Hadreas’ vivid description of a teacher who… takes an acute interest in his student’s “anatomy” (wink). By the time the smoke clears and the teacher has killed himself, Hadreas offers this parting thought: “Mr. Petersen, I know you were ready to go / I hope there’s room for you up above or down below.”
Hadreas does a great job of making piano and vocals (and not much else, at all) seem interesting for about five songs, but after a while, the combination overstays it’s welcome. I can appreciate the novelty of a guy sitting in his mom’s living room, in front of the piano, churning out songs like those found on Learning, but the album would have been serviced by broader instrumentation.
It’s not until “No Problem” that things venture more than a few steps outside the piano/vocals comfort zone Hadreas has built around the songs on the album, and even then it’s not far out of that zone. The songs opens with a swirl of synth and electronic bass and hand claps that would not sound out of place on The Blueprint 4. The song has no dynamic as it fades out in the same way it faded in, giving it the feel of a brief intermission rather than a fully formed song.
I would say someone should get this guy a Prozac, but isn’t this what we want from the artists we listen to? It’s kind of a sick fact and makes me question some of our values as humans, but we want to hear emotion, right? For every Fang Island and Andrew W.K., espousing gospels of fun and good times, there have to be Elliott Smiths and, in this case, Mike Hadreases. His formula becomes apparent after a few songs, but the saving grace of Learning is the honesty and brutality with which he speaks. Each song is like ripping open a fresh wound, and the trough of silence between tracks allows time for healing that is completely undone by each successive lament.
Who knows. Maybe Learning allowed Hadreas to exorcise all his demons and his next album will be full of Weird Al covers. But if he made Learning II: The Return of Mr. Petersen, I would probably give it a listen.
Perfume Genius | Learning | Matador Records | Release: June 22, 2010 | Rating: 6.5 of 10