Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel, Ten Thousand Saints, and Perfume Genius’s second album, Put Your Back N 2 It, make art from pain and loss. It’s a delicate act to spin sadness into narrative or song without becoming maudlin, but novel and album both perform this feat with grace.
Ten Thousand Saints is set in 1980s New York and Vermont, and follows Jude, Eliza and Johnny, three teens united by the death of Teddy, respectively their best friend, one-night stand and brother. The trio orbit each other and the straight-edge band scene – the emerging, “clean” alternative to punk rock – while struggling to deal with Teddy’s death, their loving but neglectful hippie parents and the usual perils of adolescence. The music that Jude and Johnny love lends the book a vital energy, and Eleanor Henderson writes her teen characters with no hint of condescension: drug use and sex are plainly written, and their consequences unflinchingly explored. Teddy is not physically present for much of the story, but his absence clouds every subsequent choice made by Jude, Eliza and Johnny over the next couple of years. It’s this haunted progression of young lives in the wake of devastating loss that builds the emotional power of the novel and makes you read on in search of comfort.
Mike Hadreas, who records as Perfume Genius, has lived a hard thirty-one years, negotiating drug and alcohol abuse and other personal issues. For his second album, he wanted to write something more forward-moving than his first, which had recounted his difficult story to that point. The title track of Put Your Back N 2 It, written for Hadreas’s boyfriend and sung by both of them, came from his desire to write a love song performed by two men, and their intimate, almost whispered vocals are stunning. But after a year of listening to the album, it’s “Dark Parts”, written for his mother, that has become essential to me. It’s the song I play to soothe me in the depths of a sleepless night, as mortal fears flush my veins with adrenalin. What could be more reassuring in this life than to know that another person is prepared to “take the dark parts of your heart” into their own?
Elegiac literature or music can do more than make you melancholy: it comes from the same wellspring as the need to commune at funerals. We crave exposure to each other’s pain and vulnerability to remind us that we’re not the only ones who bleed or hurt; and the sharing of pain and grief can bond us closer to those still present. Ten Thousand Saints and Put Your Back N 2 It will generously show you their scars, covering wounds that heal but can’t be forgotten.