Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) recorded this brief, haunted debut album at his mother’s house in suburban Seattle. On tracks consisting of just his plaintive voice, simple piano chords, and moody synth drones, he sings about loss and longing in sometimes stark terms. The first single, “Mr. Peterson,” is a tale of a relationship between an adolescent boy and an older teacher, sketched in a few telling lines: “He made me a tape of Joy Division/He told me there was part of him missing/When I was 16, he jumped off a building.” A sense of foreboding runs through songs like “Look Out, Look Out” (“There are murderers about”), and “You Won’t B Here.” The mournful melodies and quavering vocals sometimes call to mind Vic Chesnutt and Elliott Smith, troubled singer-songwriters whose trajectories don’t bode well for anyone following their steps.
But the album is called Learning for a reason; whatever he’s been through (in interviews, he talks about years of drug addiction and sexual misadventure), Hadreas seems to have arrived at some kind of personal peace. There’s nothing ironic in the title “Gay Angels,” one of a few ethereal tracks that recall Angelo Badalamenti’s work on Twin Peaks. And the final song, “Never Did,” is a sort of ambivalent hymn: “It’s all part of His plan/It’s all in His hands.” Hadreas may or may not believe that, and if he does, he may or may not be happy about it. But it sounds like at least some tentative form of acceptance. And it ends this often disquieting record on a surprisingly affecting note.