Beginning with his desultory 2010 debut Learning, Perfume Genius has delivered bedroom tales of sparse frankness. The back story of Mike Hadreas has been documented with each release. A gay man grappling with emotional and physical insecurities, such demons serving as muse, music as catharsis. With his latest, Too Bright, Hadreas has left those confines for a gleaming cabaret. This is not to say he’s gone pop; rather, the sheen of Too Bright is a facade that veils and drapes the unleashed torment of his latest collection of songs, his best yet as Perfume Genius.
Opening ballad “I Decline” neglects to hint at the lyrical rawness that follows. “Queen”, the album’s preening first single, bluntly plays upon heterosexual society’s fears of being taken to the homosexual woodshed and having asses broken and brought “into the fold”. A grandiose warning, Hadreas proclaims, “No family is safe when I sashay.” For such outward bombast, personal insecurities remain. Hadreas sings on “My Body”, “I wear my body like a rotted peach / You can have it if you can handle the stink / I’m as open as a gutted pig.” Asking how love can be found amongst such decrepitude, he posits on “No Good”, “Am I meant to fray the edge? / On the outside looking in / All used up / But never used enough.”
The body as golden bauble belies the penetrable shell incapable of hiding internal doubt on “Don’t Let Them In”: “Don’t let them in / They’re well intended / But each comment rattles some deep / Ancient queen.” Rejecting the position of platonic pawn on the two-act doo-wop drama of “Fool”, first fawning “like a cartoon”, Hadreas disrupts domestic stability in the second verse: “I made your dress / I’m bleeding out / On the couch you bought / That I picked out.” This paradox of subordinate versus equal plays out on the album’s final two songs. Having succumbed to being “laid upon … each night” on the whimsical title track, Hadreas finally vocalizes his discontent on “All Along”, the album’s pleading closer where he delivers his rebuke: “I don’t need your love / I don’t need you to understand / I need you to listen”.
Often criticised for the brevity of songs on Learning and Put Yr Back N 2 It, Hadreas and co-producer Adrian Utley (Portishead) wisely do not address this matter on Too Bright. It’s 11 songs — none reaching four minutes in length — are given a largesse and volatility thanks to Utley’s studio grafting of textures and layered vocals that both expand Perfume Genius’ sonic pallet with throbs and horrific shrieks as on “Grid” and muddle lyrics as on the hellish drone of “I’m a Mother”, which could double as an Angelo Badalamenti score for a David Lynch film.
Equal parts lyric and mood, the two create a dynamic tension on Too Bright that, regardless of sexual orientation, should be taken as a treatise on human frailty and the need for reciprocity in life and love. Glittered with transcendent brilliance, gilded shadows do not hide the empowered dramatic turn of Perfume Genius’s Too Bright.