Over the course of two astonishing albums, Perfume Genius, aka Seattle native Mike Hadreas, cemented his place as a singer-songwriter of rare frankness, creating songs that, while achingly emotional, offered empathy and hope, rather than any judgment or handwringing. Sparse, gorgeous and with Hadreas’ quavering vocals often only accompanied by piano, they were uncommonly beautiful tales of a life lived on the dark side – scarred, brutalised, yet ultimately, slowly but surely reclaimed.
Too Bright, however, is something else altogether. Less self-conscious, and less concerned with storytelling and easily-digested melodies, it is a brave, bold, unpredictably quixotic exploration of what Hadreas calls “an underlying rage that has slowly been growing since ten and has just begun to bubble up”. Recorded with Adrian Utley of Portishead and featuring John Parish on several tracks, it is a stunning about-face which brings to mind audacious career-shift albums like Kate Bush’s The Dreaming or Scott Walker’s Tilt, records which walk the tightrope between pure songwriting and overt experimentation.
The fragile yet defiant “I Decline” opens the album, draped in hushed, languorous beauty, but it is an outlier. The next line you hear after that however, on the following track (and first single) “Queen”, are the words “Don’t you know your queen?” boomed out over ominous keyboards. This is not so much a genuine question as a rhetorical one, as Hadreas deconstructs gay panic with relish, singing “no family is safe, when I sashay” before the chorus explodes into a gloriously cacophonous symphony of synths and vocals. It is both the most anthemic work Hadreas has done so far but also his most perverse, a gleeful kiss off to what he describes as “faces of blank fear when I walk by…if these fucking people want to give me some power – if they see me as some sea witch with penis tentacles that are always prodding and poking and seeking to convert the muggles – well, here she comes”.
Similarly, a surreal threat hangs over songs like “My Body” and “Grid”, with piercing screams, tribal drums and electronic stabs highlighting disturbing lyrics of self-destruction and temporary respite from the darkness. On “Fool”meanwhile, swinging doo-wop rhythms disguise a story of social mutiny, with Hadreas tearing into the stereotype of “a walking, talking candelabra”, and rejecting it for something much more volatile and dangerous.
Which is not to say that Hadreas has completely abandoned the shimmering, exquisite piano ballads that he is so known for. “No Good” is a heartbreaking meditation on a difficult life lived on the outside but “spent looking in”, while the somber closer “All Along” is a resigned yet firm rebuke to acceptance and reassurance from external forces, preferring instead to find refuge from within. This, in fact, is the overarching theme of Too Bright; the connective tissue joining up these 11 stunning, weird and wonderful tracks – the discovery of strength and power where previously Hadreas felt he had little. As he himself puts it, during the making of the album “like i had woken some ancient beast which began to rattle and threaten to rise”.