Music Reviews
Too Bright

Perfume Genius Too Bright

(Matador) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

Some might say that art’s greatest, most therapeutic (and some might say only real) use is as a means of self-expression. For most, this means one simple thing – taking all of the hardships, worries, and insecurities in your life that make you feel small and helpless and spinning it all into something creative as a means to translate to others how you feel, and for many, art might be the only way they can do it. Listening to the work of Perfume Genius, a.k.a. singer-songwriter Michael Hadreas, you’d get the impression he’s one of these people. With his debut album Learning, and excellent follow-up Put Your Back N 2 It, Hadreas let all of his blood out with sparsely arranged, deeply personal music that took all of the singer’s greatest demons – from his family history, to his health struggles, to the hardships he’s faced as an openly gay male – and spun them into poetic-yet-revealing songs delivered with the singers wounded, quivering wail. Each song felt – lyrically and sonically – like the work of someone completely crushed by the woes in their life, with art being the only way they can make any sense of it.

But what if expressing yourself through art can do more for you than just give you a place to vent and relate your problems with us. What if through writing a song, art can instead transform you – let you become something more powerful, fearful, and intimidating than the things that intimidate and overpower you. What if music can turn you into a fierce predator and make your demons your prey. This is the type of expression Hadreas boldly goes for in Too Bright, the songwriter’s latest and easily most confident album, which features a wider musical palate and lyrics which, while still damaged and confessional, attempt to place the singer above his problems rather than submerged deep within them.

The album’s opening breath – the sparse piano ballad I Decline – could admittedly fit neatly with the many sparse piano ballads that have made up much of Hadreas’ output, but rather than a retread of the artists past work, the song instead works to ease in listeners while explicitly laying out Too Bright’s newfound point-of-view. “I can see for miles/The same old line/No thanks/I decline,” croons Hadreas on each plink of the piano. Consider this verse Hadreas’ thesis for the album – the problems that have haunted him in the past and present are still omni-present, but rather than completely giving in to them, he chooses to stand defiant in spite of them, looking away simply because he chooses to.

And if you’re not convinced, the following track, the outrageous Queen, will do the trick. With its bombastic drums, distortion-layered vocals, and glammed-out synths which range from oppressive to sparkling, Queen not only completely dismantles everything you’ve ever thought about Hadreas as a musician, but as a subject in his own music as well. “No family’s safe when I sashay,” he shouts before grunting like a pumped, bloodthirsty football player. This isn’t the sound of singer scared and overwhelmed, this is the confident voice of a man completely owning his sexual identity and using it to release the beast inside of him, causing all that gets in his way to tremble.

Hadreas’ lyricism has always been the shining element of Perfume Genius, but while it is still as strong as ever, it’s the audacious sonic qualities that really stand out on Too Bright, and will certainly turn the most heads of fans and new listeners alike. The addition of more abrasive and defined synth textures tend to be the key ingredient in livening things up, but they’re hardly used in a one-dimensional sense. Longpig, for instance, is built on idiosyncratic, sci-fi-like synths reminiscent of Kraftwerk, while more aggressive tracks, like the ear-splitting My Body or the Suicide-inspired standout Grid, go for a pervasive industrial vibe. Even aside from the synths, however, many of these songs are embellished with urgent rhythm sections and eccentric backing vocals (especially on Grid), to further rewrite what we thought we knew about Perfume Genius.

But even when Hadreas isn’t trying to throw us off with aggressive industrial bursts and switches back to the faithful piano settings on his keyboard, the songwriter’s obvious compositional growth carries songs to levels they’ve never been before. No Good, for instance, carries on for its first two minutes like a standard Perfume Genius song until Hadreas allows the song to be whisked away on an elegent, almost impressionistic piano line while disembodied vocals layer on atmosphere, and with Fool, we see the singer totally distancing himself from a traditional song structure, allowing the track to morph multiple times in less than 4 minutes. What really stands out, however, is the euphoric transition between the incredibly atmospheric I’m a Mother, who’s organs and vocals are so low register you’d question whether they’re even there, before slowing building into a quiet splendor as it passes on to Too Bright. This shows how Hadreas has been considering the composition of songs not just within tracks, but between them as well, suggesting a greater connectivity between the tracks not seen as much on past releases.

Through Too Bright, it’s clear that Hadreas is still as wounded as he’s ever been. The album’s closer, All Along, seems to attempt to settle the score on this, as it’s one of the more plainly spoken tracks on the album. While the song is still brimming with the confidence displayed throughout the album (“You wasted my time”), what stands out to me are the last few lines – “I don’t need your love/I don’t need you to understand/I need you to listen.” In a sense, Hadreas perfectly captures what an artist might want to get out of putting their feelings on a record in the first place – listeners can’t be there for you or pat you on the back, they simply listen, and sometimes that’s therapy in itself. Few artists in this day and age take self-expression through art to heart like Hadreas does as Perfume Genius, and with the sensitive confidence that radiates from Too Bright, he’s mastered it in a way few artists never do.