Perfume Genius – Too Bright (Matador)
Ever since gay marriage vaulted queer issues into the mainstream, pop music has responded, if at all, with earnest platitudes (see: “Born This Way,” "Same Love"). Few musicians, if any, have used their art to suggest just how subversive queer culture was and is, how dangerous it is to embrace supposed “flamboyance,” the marginalization that exists outside of mainstream assimilation.
Then along comes a guy who calls himself Perfume Genius, with a song called “Queen,” with a chorus that baits: “No family is safe / when I sashay.” This man does not want a peaceful life in the suburbs and settling for tolerance rather than acceptance. He’s a queer Stagger Lee, a homophobe’s worst nightmare, “casing the barracks / for an ass to break and harness / into the fold / marry.” And he does so with a voice that struts and seethes, staring down death and disease and contempt, backed by a sparse and gutsy rhythm section that crafts majesty out of a bare minimum of notes.
Perfume Genius is 32-year-old Mike Hadreas of Seattle; this is his third album, but his first working with a full band. Producers John Parish (PJ Harvey) and Adrian Utley (Portishead) know when to leave Hadreas and his piano ballads alone, and exactly when to inject the appropriate bombast, glam rock and occasional steps into operatic avant-garde. He told Rolling Stone that he’s “trying to use whatever it is that makes people uncomfortable around me as a sort of power over them." It works.
“Fool” spends its first minute in a finger-snapping, pseudo-Motown groove before breaking down into a delicate dirge of operatic beauty that suspends the song for a full 90 seconds; the initial groove then returns with even more swagger. “Grid” is a two-chord synth blues, with Hadreas’s voice drenched in rockabilly reverb a la Suicide’s Alan Vega, with a chorus of screaming women in the background; someone considered it commercial enough to be the second single from the album (with accompanying bizarro video).
Too Bright is too short; it’s just over half an hour long. No complaints, however: it’s thoroughly satisfying, blending traditional songcraft—some songs here could easily be tackled by ’50s torch singers—and performance art in ways that precious few ever have done so successfully. His voice and piano playing are inherently gorgeous, yet he relishes dissonance and ugliness, perhaps to cast his brighter side in starker relief. Perhaps because this man is anything but one-dimensional.
Download: “Queen,” “My Body,” “Fool”