Seattle’s Mike Hadreas spent the best part of his first two full-lengths under the Perfume Genius moniker - 2010’s Learning and its 2012 follow-up Put Your Back N 2 It - finding ways to weather and draw strength from humanity’s darker moments. Romantic and sexual abuse, substance dependence, pedophilia, prejudice, dysmorphia - all crop up across both suites, backed by a musical aesthetic whose neo-classicist tendencies, often skewed my modern means, resemble faded daguerrotypes of emotion too resonant to be forgotten.
As a lyricist, Hadreas has always been daring. Whether it’s the uneasy student-teacher relationship - and subsequent suicide - conjured by Learning highlight “Mr. Peterson” or stark Put Your Back N 2 It opener “AWOL Marine”, reportedly inspired by a piece of amateur pornography Hadreas had been watching in which a participant turns to the camera and confesses he’s just trying to get medication for his wife, the pianist and singer has never been afraid to take long, considered looks at not just mankind’s dark points, but our inherent fragility.
Musically however, while certainly wrapped in their own sense of delicate beauty, both records aren’t the most groundbreaking of listens. Dare I say it, they’re almost formulaic: rooted in tinker-toy arpeggios, saloon bar chord sequences twisted into minor key melancholia and an ornate use of found sound that can eek up the eerie factor tenfold. Or, as he put it in a recent Stereogum interview while discussing 1985 Ridley Scott fantasy epic Legend: “You know, really beautiful but all these icky parts underneath. There’s something unsettling about that; I like that.”
How refreshing it is then that on Too Bright, his third album as Perfume Genius, Hadreas finally appears to have found a sound palette as provocative, forward-thinking and confrontational as his vehement, brave lyrical style.
It’s a subtle shift, at first. Opener “I Decline” acts as something of a transitional piece, a simple and evocative piano figure whose glacially paced chords could easily have fit on either of his previous LPs, opened with a stark declaration: “I can see for miles.” Looking outwards at what he described in a chat with Wondering Sound as the futility of existence, he offers a considered refusal. “That’s alright. I decline.”
The seachange truly begins to occur on single “Queen”. It’s an immediate departure from anything he’s previously laid to tape: marked by a full drum kit, blasts of ear-rattling synth and tribal oofs, Hadreas offers a searing indictment against those who’ve caused the New York transplant what he describes as “gay panic”. It’s a measure of his newfound confidence and comfort bracing these issues that he’s able to cap it with one of the most touching and hilarious sentiments ever expressed in a Perfume Genius song: “No family is safe when I sashay.”
What follows is a stunning voyage through a wonderfully creative mind. “Grid”’s percolating synths and percussive vocal play summons the spirits of James Chance or Suicide’s Alan Vega while the 16-bit laser sequences of “Longpig” discover a lost hinterland between Moroder and Zombi, Throbbing Gristle and Todd Terje. The newfound variety on display here rarely fails to captivate and offers Hadreas a myriad of new avenues to pursue.
It all comes to a head with finale “All Along”. Accompanied by an unadorned piano motif, our protagonist emerges for all to see with one last proclamation for our ears and our consideration. “I don’t need your love. I don’t need you to understand. I need you to listen,” he offers, heartfelt turbulence on display for all to see. It’s a perfect synopsis for Too Bright in general: as Perfume Genius, he’s finding new ways to step out of the haze and to explore himself, his sexuality and the world around him. Mike Hadreas doesn’t necessarily need your understanding, but you’d be a fool not to prick up your ears and hear what he has to say.