This may finally be the year Perfume Genius rises to fame. The Seattle-based solo artist Mike Hadreas has been putting out emotive chamber pop under that moniker since 2008 when he moved to Everett, Washington to live with his mother. His songs stand with bravery in little to no clothing, relying on piano and occasional percussion to face the daggers of love, gay rights, and inequality.
We all need to know we’re not alone out there, and he’ll be the first to step up and give you a hug.
This year’s excellent LP Too Bright sees him walking farther into the spotlight, letting his songs reach more people who are looking to be saved. It’s been hailed by critics around the board, but even when Hadreas started with his debut Learning in 2010, he was raising a plank to cover those struggling to stay dry in the rain.
Tackling the social stigma Hadreas endures daily, title track “Learning” is his attempt at conveying the struggle gays face in today’s society. With the opening line, “No one will answer your prayers until you take off that dress,” his wobbly voice and lo-fi nature ring with the weight of Daniel Johnston — the type of simple straightforwardness that so bleakly pegs the world. The song’s piano sprinkles around like flourishes from classical composers. By the time it ends, it feels like it’s a fortune cookie you actually believe, bring it home, and tape to the back of your door as a morning reminder.
The National know a thing or two about sadness. The indie rock band creates the type of heartfelt, complicated arrangements expected of the Dessner twins, and singer Matt Berninger makes every word a deadpan, melancholic mumble with his baritone vocals.
Who better to capture Perfume Genius’ defeated sighs?
At the beginning of this year, The National put on a Valentine’s Day-oriented covers contest for their fans. The rules were simple: submit a cover of “I Need My Girl” from 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me and you could win $500. To prove that they weren’t just sitting on their tear-stained thrones waiting to hear recordings of others’ hearts breaking, the band released the song as a digital single and included a cover of their own as the B-side: “Learning”.
In their rendition of the song, The National allow space to fill the areas of Hadreas’ life they can’t speak to personally. The chorus is sweet with warm harmonies. The piano dances jovially. The guitar slides with a nostalgic tear. The three, combined, speak to both the changes and lackthereof regarding gay rights. As Berninger sings with a true sadness, the band unearth their solidarity with Perfume Genius and the faceless others he represents.
Note that The National don’t try to mimic Perfume Genius’ lo-fi pain. There’s no fight to match the twinkle of his piano or learned enunciation to nail the whispered sadness of his vocals. Instead, they keep the same atmosphere present and repeat it as an echo, letting their vocals and spaced guitar offer a hug to Perfume Genius, albeit several years later.
[Run For Cover is a weekly music column comparing cover songs to the original version. Prepare for a major bending of rules as we hear musicians throw around genres, tempos, style, and intent. Whether they’re picking up another’s song out of respect or boredom, the results have impressed us.]