The current wave of bedroom pop has been more about the druggy pulsations of an insulated childhood rather than honest-to-God songwriting; sure Neon Indian’s Psychic Chasms is a hooking record, but it wouldn’t necessarily be accurate to say it hits an emotional chord, nor does it try to. The scene is defined by forcing upbeat electro through a low-rent filter, resulting in some oddly danceable sounds, casting aside lyrics for mantras of “Feel it All Around” or “Should Have Taken Acid With You.”
That’s not the case for 26-year old Mike Hadreas who, despite having all the trappings of a chillwave up-starter, instead uses his solo-project Perfume Genius to create some of the most sadly sincere songs we’ve heard all year. Learning’s brief, sub-half-hour running time is heartbreakingly meek, often pairing Hadreas’ falsetto with nothing more than his chiming, fragile piano. He has remarkable knack for storytelling, especially considering how long he’s been writing songs. The centerpiece, (and blog-buzzer) “Mr. Petersen” is an absolutely frigid tale of an illicit relationship with a wayward math teacher, ending in a gruesome, and genuinely chilling way – rarely does a song with such humble production pack a visceral punch of that level.
Nothing matches the genius of “Mr. Petersen,” but Learning’s other showings are still incredibly strong. Naturally most are about some degree of psychological damage, the estranged Mary in “Write to Your Brother,” the ruminations on God and forgiveness on the title-track, the songs are direct and always demand attention. It’s only when Hadreas veers off into the ambient, texture-focused divergence of tracks like “No Problem” or “Gay Angels” where Learning looses steam. He’s much better at creating melody than atmosphere.
Despite those brief moments of aimlessness, Learning is easily one of the most likable albums you’re going to hear this year. It’s impossible not to root for the broken, near-tears voice behind these songs, and listening to him struggle through the heady hopelessness of the entirely-real topics of death, shame and mortality only makes him even more believable. Hadreas is one of the strongest songwriters we’ve seen develop this year, and Learning puts that on display beautifully.