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Perfume Genius, ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’ (Matador)

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: February 20, 2012
Label: Matador

The album title might look gangsta, and in its own way, Mike Hadreas’ second album lives up to that billing. As he proved on his 2010 debut, Learning, the artist otherwise known as Perfume Genius writes glum, bedsit queer-pop with a disinterest in the rest of the world that is as airtight as the private street argot that hermetically seals a Ghostface record. Tuff album title, fey moniker — oh, the irony.

Learning was exactly that: the aural diary of a damaged young man figuring out how to make his pain signify with a piano, a couple of chords, and the truth. Think John Lennon’s “Crippled Inside” and its snug marriage of jaunty hook and scabrous self-counsel. “No one will hear all your crying until you take your last breath,” Hadreas sang on the title track, with a baby-powder-soft timbre that could do fey and gay — in its classic Webster’s definition — at the same time. In “Mr. Peterson,” sung from the point of a view of a student recounting a teacher’s doomed crush on him (Mr. Peterson jumps off a building), he showed a talent for narrative concision and wry twists; the line about Mr. Peterson making him a Joy Division tape got the attention, but the kicker is “I hope there’s room for you up above / Or down below.” However, Put Your Back N 2 It has the stereotypical pluses and minuses of a second album: an increased command of symphonics and mixing board tricks that dress up melodically crimped songs once again beholden to the verities of confessional rock. It assaults the listener with its not-long-for-this-worldness.

Sculpting arrangements that underline his obsession with escape, Hadreas can create harrowing listening experiences. He teases with the most elementary of keyboard lines on “Dark Parts” then relentless percussion evokes the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” providing the tension; cracked, wordless harmonies in the last third provide the release. The near-wordless opener “Awol Marine” boasts separately tracked keyboard parts, buttressed by strings heavy with portent, it all eventually intersects, only to be smothered abruptly in a wail of feedback. It’s like the end of a bad dream — one in which a young, closeted member of the Armed Forces heaves himself overboard, Hart Crane-style. Keyboards swell to impressive proportions on “All Waters,” a soundtrack for Twin Peaks slash fiction: slow, hurtful sex between Bobby Briggs and James Hurley. There are even drums on “Hood,” which rocks, kinda, and has grit, sorta, especially when it threatens to turn into an early Elton John piano jam.

But on the rest of Put Your Back N 2 It Hadreas neither treats his psychodramas with a lighter touch nor offers pleasure to his putative objects of desire; he almost sounds like he deserves to be dumped. About a quarter of the record can claim awesome titles and rote melancholy (“Floating Spit”). Others, like “17,” in which Hadreas becomes a teen who describes his physical ugliness with chilling honesty, would sound revelatory if they were exceptions instead of the rule. “Take Me Home” comes closest to mocking his self-obsession: “I wither and I bruise / I run my mouth like a fool,” he moans, climbing octaves on the last word, while keyboards suffused with enough echo for the caves of Lascaux bang away. Wearing his melodrama like plumage, Hadreas sounds not only worthy of love, but shrewd enough to have figured out how to win it back.

It’s possible that the treading-water quality of Put Your Back N 2 It, which barely clocks in past the 30-minute mark, affirms Hadreas’ understanding of his limits: brevity isn’t just the soul of wit, it’s the soul of his art. But if he knows musical history as well as his tumult, then a third Perfume Genius album may rescue him from the blahs — preferably backed by a band that can coax ambiguities out of his voice and pen. There are reasons to think he might. For all his moues, Hadreas has his no-bullshit moments: “I will carry on with grace and zero tears,” he sings on “No Tears.” Who does he choose as a harmony partner? His own voice distorted, all monster-like — a filigree both cute and knowing. Put a band n 2 it!