Ahead of the Woke Curve
Nobody was woke in 2012. Strictly speaking, the idea of being "woke" wasn't commonly accepted at the time as it has since come to be. Plenty of us were empathetic to the plights of others and were only too happy to commiserate on an intellectual level, but wokeness carries with it the idea of a true acceptance that not only can one never know the suffering of another, but that said suffering must be acknowledged and accounted for in thought and conversation. Since waking people up wasn't a goal for most music back then, it is entirely possible that Michael Hadreas' second LP as Perfume Genius is one of the pioneering examples of what woke music can look like.
Put Your Back N 2 It is not, however, entirely a document of how Hadreas feels about the situations of others. While others' difficulties certainly come into play at times - see the way they are piggybacked on the damaged hymnal churn of "Dark Parts" on which he describes the past abuse of his mother - the album is more of a viscerally affecting Steadicam tracking shot of his own attitudes. On "All Waters", he yearns for the day "when I can take your hand on any crowded street…with no hesitating" - he is concentrating his desire to express love as a gay man into an impossibly small drop of beautiful sentiment to combat the ugly truth of anti-gay discrimination. "AWOL Marine" is another song that covers the distress of someone else in a rust coating of ambivalence: inspired by a moment of unexpected truth in a porn video, it uses a form of lyrical pointillism to paint a stark, albeit small, portrait of his own personal pain.
It is always possible to hear Hadreas' own aggregated discontent even as he uses others as narrative voices. The album closer "Sister Song" is a pragmatic bit of life coaching ("drive on my special one, don't you stop 'til you know you're gone") with a piano line whose traditionalism belies the song's tone of charging through darkness in the hope of finding light. When he tells the subject of "Normal Song" that "no secret…can poison your voice or keep you from joy", he is looking into a mirror that reflects his childhood self and telling the younger man that everything will be OK in the end if only he continues to live a larger truth and not apologize for it.
Throughout, Hadreas sings in vocals that are genteel and somewhat muted, but the underlying concepts come across as so many forks dragged across the chalkboards of American iniquity. "17" advises to "tuck the whole thing in the body of a violin…cover it with semen", "Take Me Home" uses the imagery of decomposition to sell commitment ("like a dead dog, lay there 'til my eyes pop"), and on "Hood" he describes himself as a ticking bomb. This form of radical honesty is central to the idea of wokeness: how can anyone consider themselves fundamentally alert when they haven't heard, or more importantly listened to, the psychological realities of others' lives in ways that are direct and uncensored?
The understatement employed musically pairs well with Hadreas' so-simple-it's-complex lyrical style, but it's the album’s sequencing that is truly the pièce de résistance. "AWOL Marine" sets a tone that opens the proceedings with an uncanny ethereality, and "Dirge"'s place as the centerpiece uses the elegiac words of Edna St Vincent Millay to chillingly somber effect. The one-two punch of "Floating Spit" giving over its plaintive awe to the folksy ramble of "Sister Song" cements the album's impact. There is a reading of the two positionally linked tracks that supposes they are two sides of the same conversation wherein one person feels themselves falling apart ("I don't think that I can hold it") and the other person tells them that they need to change their surroundings so that they can properly reset and get a new chance at life.
An album that was arguably ahead of its time, Put Your Back N 2 It metastasized a cancer of ignorant apathy that society wasn't yet aware that it had, and in the years since it has become even more essential as a diagnostic tool, even if it stops short of being a prescribed treatment. Homosexuality is still demonized in much of the world. Mental health challenges that arise from trauma and past events still affect millions and their stigma has only recently begun to subside. Addiction is a problem all too real for an substantial cross-section of America and beyond. Perfume Genius created a safe space that was both an arm-wrestling match between softness and brutality and a blueprint for what wokeness looks like. Like the album itself, this is a scenario filled with equal parts tragedy and hope: the tragedy is that it wasn't fully recognized for what it was at the time; the hope is that audiences will discover it (or rediscover, as the case may be) in an era where being woke has graduated from being ideal, to being necessary.