Perfume Genius is a strangely perfect name for Mike Hadreas' music. Like scent, his songs are delicate but strong, faint yet persistent, and have a deep, almost inexplicable emotional pull. On his debut album, Learning, Hadreas comes across like the kid brother of Antony Hegarty or Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart, taking the vulnerability of a singer/songwriter to an extreme with messed-up and heartbreaking stories. Yet, despite Hadreas' shaky, at times barely audible vocals, there’s an ease to his confessions that makes him unique; as uncomfortable as his subjects can be, he doesn’t play them for shock value. Instead, he embraces the disturbing and the heartfelt equally, accepting that caring can be creepy with a matter-of-factness that makes it all the more powerful. Hadreas sings “It’s all part of his plan” over whirling synths on the album closer, “Never Did,” and it’s equally likely that he’s referring to a benevolent higher power or something more tangible and sinister. “Mr. Peterson” sketches out a friendship (possibly more) with a teacher and treats his suicide with evenhanded compassion: “I hope there’s room for you up above or down below.” Learning gives its sometimes hard words soft surroundings, either cushioning them with ethereal synths and music boxes on “No Problem” or allowing his piano to reverberate around them with an almost hymnal quality, as on the bittersweet lullaby “When.” At times Hadreas' songs suggest personal notes or diary entries set to music -- not because they’re too literal, but because of the emotional weight implied in them. He reveals only the smallest but most telling parts of his stories, playing cat and mouse with details and telling gaps: on “Write to Your Brother,” the lyric “Tell him mom treats you like a lover/That you have to hide all the mouthwash from her” says it all. But what makes Hadreas' songwriting remarkable is the empathy he holds for his characters. “Perry” does a chiaroscuro dance between hope and despair, but ends the song with the line “Whatever good is left/Put your trust in it/You know we already have.” As dark as Learning’s songs can get, it always feels like Hadreas wants the best for the people he sings about, and a good, ultimately hopeful kind of sadness permeates nearly every song. Not even half an hour long, Learning shows just what a strong impression music so fragile can make.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares