Too Bright – Perfume Genius (2014)

Too Bright cover art
Too Bright cover art

For most of us, our lives have been mostly pleasant with all the expected experiences of growing up taken for granted. There are however still populations who are routinely discriminated against, sometimes to the point of violence.

Mike Hadreas was a member of such a population. The openly gay Seattle suburbanite was ridiculed and beaten up in school. He dropped out in his senior year and left for New York for a short time before returning to Seattle to write music while trying to recover from a drug and alcohol addiction.

Recording under the name Perfume Genius, Hadreas made a name for himself after the release of his second album Put Your Back N 2 It. One of it’s videos, “Hood” featured a buff gay porn star applying makeup to a feminized and indifferent Hadreas. It earned a saucy rating from YouTube only to peak interest in Perfume Genius. The music up to that point had been clever soulful pop with witty lyrics in the vein of a Morressy or Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys.

With the third Perfume Genius album Too Bright, Hadreas explored his deeper feelings about his troublesome past. The songs were brash and experimental, yet tempered by his beautiful falsetto. Adrian Utley of Portishead produced the project and provided an electronic element that had been absent on the first two Perfume Genius albums.

The results are sometimes baroque and experimental with aggressive and heavy lyrical content. “Queen” the album’s first single is a great example of grandiose angst with hipsocord-like embellishments alongside drums and guitar. It’s a powerful unapologetic statement, similar to John Grant in its frank honesty and rage, especially on “Grid”. Unlike John Grant’s gruff delivery, Hadreas has a kind of camp elegance befitting a street wise cross dresser or female impersonator.

Vocally Hadreas uses his falsetto to stunning effect, often in contrast to brash arrangements. Perfume Genius can at times sound like a cross between Paul Simon (“I Decline” and “Don’t Let Them In”) and How To Dress Well. Alternating between fragile, triumphant and even creepy (“I’m a Mother”), Hadreas displays an impressive range that would be the envy of more mainstream pop stars.

Hadreas himself credits PJ Harvey as inspiration. John Parish, a PJ Harvey collaborator even assisted in the albums production. The raw energy in Too Bright presumably comes from anger and resentment towards Hadreas tormentors. This angst is tamed with a organically sounding production all while Hadreas tempers diva like sensibilities. This intricate balancing act is one reason why everyone from Michael Stipe to The New Yorker are singing his musical praises.

Too Bright ranked highly on the rock media’s 2014 best of album lists for good reason. It’s an innovate approach to honest songwriting that goes beyond genre expectations. Maybe it’s true what they say about adversity breeding great art. Hopefully Hadreas will come to terms with what ails him. In the meantime I will just keep enjoying his music.

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