Up until now Perfume Genius was known for combining the pretty with the ugly. Mike Hadreas’ first offerings Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It were largely centred around delicate piano and his shaky voice singing stories of gay pornstars, rule-breaking teachers, suicide and other not-so-light topics. He made his name as a startlingly honest and confrontational songwriter who was content with letting his weighty words do all the talking he needed. Hadreas has spoken of how he intended this third record Too Bright to embrace a poppier direction and result in a jump into the big leagues but shortly after uniting with Portishead’s Adrian Utley the rulebook was positively thrown out of the window and downright obliterated.
‘I Decline’ would have you believe quite the contrary however as it ushers the album in with the familiar ingredients of the Perfume Genius sound: Hadreas and his ebonys and ivorys. ‘I can see for miles’ he whimpers before dismissing the common lyric with ‘the same old line/no thanks, I decline’ which speaks volumes of the singer’s refusal to dilute his songs to cater for a wider audience. However it is with the following track, the defining ‘Queen’ that we first see Hadreas expanding his musical palette to match the juxtaposition of beauty and horror that he so often lives by lyrically. Boasting one of the most memorable choruses you’re likely to hear this year – ‘No family is safe when I sashay’ – along with its droning guitars, massive melodies and layered vocals, it is perhaps the strongest track here.
Despite its short running time, Too Bright is in fact chocked full of succinct gems, each distancing itself from the last impressively. For instance ‘Fool’ rides a positively 80s sounding keyboard riff before abruptly choosing to stop only to build up to Hadreas’ soaring falsetto which provides the most beautiful moment on the album whereas ‘My Body’ utilises clouds of ugly noise to get its point across. ‘Grid’ reprises lyrics from ‘I Decline’ over a sharp Suicide-like bubbling synth while ‘I’m A Mother’ presents the furthest departure from the Perfume Genius sound of old with it’s bleak backdrop and pitch-shifted, barely-decipherable vocals. Every track has its own character but ‘Longpig’ easily wins the award for best song title here.
These songs bear little resemblance to Hadreas’ established sound but sprinkled among these, are the more stripped-back piano ballads of his comfort zone. By keeping one foot in the past while also lunging forward Hadreas has crafted a wonderfully unique record that keeps on giving with repeated listens. On a record littered with personal truths about how he is seen and judged due to his sexuality among other things, it is perhaps the closing ‘All Along’ that exemplifies his goal the greatest: ‘I don’t need your love/I don’t need you to understand/I need you to listen’.