Perfume Genius finds evil and angels in his experimental pop
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The first lines of Perfume Genius’ album ‘Learning’ are some of the most harrowing of the year. Over a simple pop piano line recorded to sound like it’s coming through an apartment wall, Mike Hadreas promises that ‘No one will answer your prayers until you take off that dress.... But you will learn to mind me, and you will learn to survive me.’ It’s the start of a 10-song pansexual psychodrama that’s lovely to hear but a pretty terrifying one to listen to.
‘Learning’ is populated with Joy Division fans leaping to their deaths, addicts drinking mouthwash for a fix and a catalog of trailer-trash noir worthy of Harmony Korine. But the thing that takes the record from aggressively miserable to marrow-deep unnerving is the sheer loveliness of its production -- distant ‘70s New York minimalism run through a scrim of four-track static that has peers in William Basinski’s tape decay, Arthur Russell’s ear for repetition and open space and Antony & the Johnsons’ sense of bloodletting grandeur. Hadreas not only makes the most of his jittery falsetto and rudimentary piano playing, he uses them to turn songs into letters in a bottle floating on a vast ocean of withering grief, bleak humor and, in the ambient suite ‘Gay Angels,’ maybe a tiny shred of redemption.