Review: Perfume Genius, Too Bright

Long pigeonholed, the new album from Perfume Genius demands attention and admiration.
perfume genius

opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >

Earlier this year, I wrote for PMA about “Queen,” the debut single from the third full-length by Washington-based singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas, a.k.a. Perfume Genius. There, I discussed the way Hadreas has used an aesthetic that reads as “soft” – each song a little sigh, their understated arrangements and hushed vocals washed out with their own echoes – in order to lull listeners into a sense of false security which Hadreas then manipulates, now playfully, then cruelly; now horrifyingly, now tragically.

To jump back on that train of thought: while the Youtube-banned video for the very much SFW “Hood,” the first single from 2012 sophomore LP Put Your Back N 2 It, allowed Hadreas to develop a unique visual sensibility and drew him into newsworthy controversy, the record overall turned out, unfortunately, to be staler than that initial impression suggested even as it advanced his craft significantly. Hadreas’s key tactic is an effective but unsustainable one, a terrible intimacy that loses its edge at the exact moment it becomes de rigueur. Just two years into Perfume Genius’s existence, those speciously pretty songs about abjection and emotion were straying close to being just plain pretty, speciousness dissipated. The culture at large, which had rejected the “Hood” video, learned quickly how to manage, absorb, even predict Hadreas. No one who’d voluntarily heard “Mr. Peterson” thrice through was going to double-take for a whimpered plea like “cover it with semen”; the sudden appearance of shameful bodily secretions during a maudlin ballad was, by the release of Put Your Back N 2 It, pretty much just par for the course. That wicked double-take isn’t the most crucial element of any Perfume Genius song – they’re all much better than that – but doesn’t our collective attention span live or die by less? It’s hard out here (for an artist necessarily hewing close to the traditional and nearly obsolete “sensitive singer-songwriter” paradigm in order to mess with it), you know?

So you hear a new song from third album Too Bright like “Don’t Let Them In,” which almost – but almost! – flutters off into the Disneyfied blushes of 50 States Project-era Sufjan Stevens before curling back into foetal position and crying itself to sleep; or something like the fragile “No Good,” whose keys swirl around a dark center of wordless coos.... You hear the patient opener “I Decline,” which has minor piano chords and somber vocals and what sounds like the faintest ghost of an electric guitar holding out a single note. You hear these things and know exactly what you’re getting into with Too Bright. But the opening line of “I Decline,” and thus of the record, is “I can see for miles / The same old line / No thanks / I decline.” Just like Hadreas’s earliest output, its momentousness doesn’t announce itself, hits intuitively before it does cognitively. He declined. That sudden realization comes when he sings, “That’s alright, / I decline,” and then it’s a cold hard cut to the blistering chug of “Queen.” Well, really, it’s a cold hard cut to the “Queen” video, those elevator doors parting to reveal Hadrea’s face contorted into a withering snarl. You think you know what you’re about to hear? Please. You don’t know a thing.

As Erika M. Anderson, a musician who seems to share some common sonic roots with Perfume Genius (Xiu Xiu, PJ Harvey), made all too clear with her sophomore effort from earlier this year, The Future’s Void, the supposed authenticity of the confessional singer-songwriter archetype has come under scrutiny and pressure as of late. Again, Hadreas has always been in touch with the performative nature of that platform, its little ironies and hyperboles, but on Too Bright he opts to push those aesthetic principles to a breaking point that’s much harder to overlook or assimilate. The content of these songs, for instance, doesn’t quite fold up as nicely into haunting personal narratives – the lyrics are a mixture of the direct expression of pop at its most elemental and atmospheric abstraction, a combination that renders Too Bright at once more immediate and more densely elusive than anything we’ve heard from Hadreas before. It takes him – and the listener – way out of the comfort zone, a shift that suits his tendencies wonderfully.

Hadreas doesn’t seem to be editing himself, generically speaking; he indulges in various aesthetics, pushing all of them to the breaking point, at which point they give way and become Perfume Genius songs through and through, no matter their other associations. Every gesture reads as theatrically extravagant, which makes it an awfully difficult album to sit easy with. The chugging glam anthem “Queen,” the wild abjection of Rid Of Me­-style power-flip “My Body,” the bracing Suicide homage “Grid,” the relentlessly dramatic synthpop of “Longpig,” and the Karin Dreijer Andersson-meets-Erik Satie horrorshow “I’m A Mother”: these are songs so far removed from Hadreas’s usual model of intimate chamber-pop that they initially scan as absurdly over-the-top, but their intensity belies their real effect. The eerie, filtered backing vocals on “Grid” can seem too “obviously” bizarre, but that won’t stop it chilling your blood.

Those are the most extreme songs on Too Bright, but in a sense their role is merely to emphasize the way the superficially “tamer” material is equally but less obviously disruptive. Adrian Utley of Portishead produced the record, and together he and Hadreas ensure that the least jarring material translates to tape with the same rawness and sly sense of craft. “Fool” is a synth-assisted dose of warped doo-wop that seems a far cry from something like “My Body,” but heard alongside such a song, the legibility of “Fool”’s generic relations starts to seem questionable. Indeed, the song falls to pieces halfway through, and by the time it’s buttoned itself back up again, the look has come to seem not normal but deeply uncanny. The title track begins as a minor-key update on Hunky Dory­-era Bowie’s androgynous balladry, but then bursts wide open into a tidal swell that makes the spot-lit piano sound superfluous, perfunctory, even spurious. A brilliantly subtle arrangement of low woodwinds and strings similarly causes the floor to fall out from beneath the listener during “No Good,” so that the relative comfort of its first half seems lightly mocking in retrospect.

The song’s aren’t impossible to digest, but they do alternately pique and then savagely attack the listener’s interest, which means appreciating them involves ceding all sense of control to Hadreas, who’s never sounded so demented or charismatic as he does here. He does not leave a way out, an option to misinterpret or look away or absorb. Too Bright, sonically and emotionally, is a densely, at times frighteningly airless record. Hadreas “declines” a lot of things: passivity, complacent security, homophobic micro- and marcoaggressions, the value system that marks fragility as feminine and femininity as weak and weakness as worse. But while hearing it demands engagement with its unapologetically queer politics, you don’t need to do that to understand, right away, that mostly Hadreas has declined giving a damn about whatever anyone else might think about his music or want from him as an artist. At the end of (again, discomfortingly) country-tinged closer “All Along,” he informs the song's addressee (and us as well) that “I don’t need you to understand, I need you to listen.” Wielding songs as thorny, dominating, and arresting as these, it seems likely he'll get his wish.