Album Review: Perfume Genius—“Too Bright”

Perfume Genius (Media Photo)

By James Li

I’d like to think that Toronto is one of the most accepting cities in the world, but the days of police raids on gay bathhouses aren’t too far behind us. LGBT people enjoy more visibility and acceptance today, but homophobia is still alive and well even in the most tolerant and progressive societies, a topic that Seattle singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas, who performs under the name Perfume Genius, addresses in his music.

Hadreas uploaded a 16-second video of him sharing an embrace with porn star Arpad Miklos to promote his second album, Put Your Back N 2 It, which YouTube banned. The clip was tasteful — subdued, really — with no nudity or even kissing. It later formed the basis for the music video for “Hood.” Both the song and the video are minimal but devastating, even if you weren’t aware that Hadreas wrote the song about his struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction, and that Miklos committed suicide a year after the video’s release.

The album art for Too Bright

The album art for Too Bright

Perfume Genius’ third and latest album, Too Bright, maintains the sparse piano-driven sounds and emotional impact from Put Your Back N 2 It. But it’s also the project’s darkest and most strident album yet. Hadreas experiments with synthesizers on his latest album, and teams up with Portishead producer Adrian Utley. Even the most immediate pop songs on the album are confrontational. The album’s lead single, “Queen,” is a glam rock anthem that tackles homophobia head on. Like the title implies, Hadreas doesn’t feel victimized by homophobes as much as he feels emboldened. A swirling synth riff leads the track, as Hadreas wields his flamboyance as a weapon: “No family is safe when I sashay.”

Some of the most experimental tracks on Too Bright are also the most horrifying. Feelings of disgust with regard to the human body are a recurring theme on the album. Hadreas has Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disease where the body essentially attacks itself. On “My Body,” Hadreas evokes sheer bodily horror. “I wear my body like a rotted peach,” he whispers over a raw bluesy strut. If it reminds you of PJ Harvey, that’s probably no coincidence; Hadreas is a vocal admirer of Harvey’s and the track features her longtime collaborator John Parish on drums. The plinky dance number “Longpig” might be a sly reference to cannibalism too.

If that wasn’t strange enough, Hadreas channels some iconic no wave musicians on Too Bright. “Grid,” with its sputtering bassline, tribal drums, and agonized screams, could be mistaken for a Suicide track. Hadreas also cites Diamanda Galás, another Greek-American musician, as a major influence, who he says belongs in a “shared pile of bones” with him. Galás is not a very familiar name these days, but she’s perhaps most famous for Plague Mass, a 1991 album recorded in an Anglican cathedral. She flipped the script in a time when some people thought AIDS was a divine punishment for homosexuality. Performing topless and covered in blood, she shrieked like a harpy against religious and political hypocrites who she blamed for causing the AIDS crisis.

It’s easy to see why Hadreas admires Galás: she’s provocative to say the least, and she fights the same enemies that he does: hate and intolerance. Galás’ influence, especially her distinctive paint-scraping vocal style, comes through on Too Bright, especially on “I’m a Mother,” the most chilling track on the album. Hadreas wrangles with the possibility of parenthood on the song. Not as in adopting a child, but the actual physical act of giving birth. Over a murky ambient backdrop, Hadreas wordlessly whimpers in pain, and you wonder if he’s actually in labour. The track makes a powerful statement on motherhood, and it comes from a gay man of all people.

Fans of Perfume Genius’ previous works will be glad to know that Too Bright has plenty of the stark piano pieces that he perfected. “I Decline” and “No Good” are excellent, but the highlight out of these has to be the album closer, “All Along.” It’s a glimmer of hope amidst the heavy subject matter on Too Bright. Hadreas affirms his self-worth: “I don’t need your love / I don’t need you to understand / I need you to listen.” Perfume Genius has my attention, and he can have my love whether he needs it or not. Too Bright is one of the most exciting pop albums of the year, and at only 33 minutes, it wastes no time covering a lot of musical ground and hitting high emotional peaks. (Matador)

Listen: “Queen”

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