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Flagrantly Fragrant with Perfume Genius

| Thursday, September 25, 2014

Flagrantly Fragrant with Perfume geniusSusan Zhu | The Observer
“Too Bright,” the third LP from Mike Hadreas, who records under the moniker Perfume Genius, is a testament to how the personal is political. His first two records were lo-fi collections of vulnerable songs backed mostly by piano. They discussed abuse, addiction, suicide and his identity as a gay man, with a bracing emotional honesty.

This album is Hadreas’ first proper pop moment, but one that dispenses none of the emotion. He told Pitchfork that he “wanted to write music that would be in a commercial — but pull it off with integrity while sounding at least somewhat earnest.” The resulting record is a confident evolution in the vein of Annie Clark’s emergence as a violet-haired, “near-future cult leader” on St. Vincent’s self-titled album earlier this year. The cover of “Too Bright” suggests a similar stylistic leap forward, with Hadreas sporting slicked-back hair and a gold-sequined tank top. It’s the work of an art-pop auteur who has complete command of his music and imagery.

The album opener “I Decline” falls in line with much of his previous piano-based work. It’s a stark song in which he hauntingly sings, “I can see for miles, the same old line. No thanks, I decline.” That rejection of convention runs as a theme throughout much of “Too Bright.”

It is followed up by the soaring “Queen,” one of the year’s best singles. The chugging David Bowie-esque bass is as abrasive as the lyrics, which find him confronting gay panic head on. He spits out the homophobic insults he’s received — “Cracked, peeling, riddled with disease” — with a visceral anger. “No family is safe when I sashay,” he defiantly sings on the chorus, as provocation becomes empowerment. The accompanying music video is equally fantastic — a surrealist Lynchian fantasy about gender identity that exhibits Hadreas’ stunning artistry.

The first two tracks set the blueprint for the rest of the record: a mix of glam rock and confessional ballads. Thanks to co-production from Portishead’s Adrian Utley, Hadreas sounds especially thrilling when expanding into new sonic territory. The sound is a perfect match for the subject matter, which continues to explore identity politics through personal experience. “Grid” is the best example, with its synth bass and primal screams matching his world-weary lyrics. Hadreas concludes that life is just “a diamond swallowed and [expletive], then swallowed again.” The industrial “My Body” is imbued with a streak of self-loathing, “I wear my body like a rotted peach,” he screams in between blasts of distortion.

The ballads are just as compelling, and often filled with just as much rage and insecurity. On the tender closer “All Along,” Hadreas sings, “Deep down I never felt right. Even now, sometimes that feeling’s a lie.” Even with his evolution in sound, the emotion that first drew listeners to Perfume Genius is still there. All 11 songs on “Too Bright” pack a punch, revealing new layers to Hadreas’ immense talent.

In an interview with Stereogum, Hadreas said, “I’m sick of constantly seeking out reassurance and acceptance whether it’s given to me or not. … I just want to take it and give it to myself. And I think a lot of this album is me trying to do that, trying to figure out my place that I can make for myself.” That confidence establishes “Too Bright” as a step forward for Perfume Genius, as well as one of the year’s best albums. By not worrying about others’ expectations, Hadreas goes a long way toward establishing a place for himself — in the indie rock world and in society at large.


4.5 out of 5 shamrocks

recommended tracks: “Queen,” “Fool,” “Grid”

similar artists: St. Vincent, David Bowie, Kate Bush


About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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