When Perfume Genius—the solo project of piano-playing songwriter Mike Hadreas—first caught attention for the 2010 debut Learning, the wide-spread praise centered around Hadreas’ stark lyrical content. Drawing on years of drug addiction and personal turmoil, Learning’s home recording-style only added to the immediacy and personal nature of the music—the songs couldn’t have been more spare unless they were sung a cappella. Follow-up Put Your Back N 2 It, released in 2012, had little choice but to expand on his sound. Its lead single “Hood” incorporated dominant percussion—hardly a landmark maneuver—but coming across as a revelation when backing such melodically inviting songcraft.
With third LP Too Bright, Perfume Genius sounds unlimited by lack of musical training or a skimpy recording budget. Even the relatively minimal opener “I Decline” builds upon the sonics of previous work, subtly allowing a lone violin to accompany Hadreas along with the angelic backing vocals that have been employed sparingly in the past. “Queen,” the album’s first single, follows with something more devilish: a distorted synth bass line, harpsichord effects, and menacing choir. Hadreas’ music has previously allowed him to come to terms with his past while providing empathy for those coming from (or ending up in) similar places. Too Bright is the gloves coming off, the curtain that once was gently pulled back now ripped from its rod and set on fire.
What results is at times noisy, at times beautiful, and always captivating. “Fool” manages to be all of these, beginning and ending with Motown-influenced finger snaps and baritone doo-wops (Hadreas cites Otis Redding as one of the artists he was listening to while creating the album, and it shows here) but separated by a ghostly, spliced-in diversion that manages to shake the listener without being jarring. The jarring comes later, on “My Body,” which doubles the singer’s voice in falsetto over a sinister bass line that is the sonic equivalent of a horror film. “Grid” is even scarier, employing children’s chants and Hadreas’ own tormented screams.
Hadreas has described Too Bright as coming from an angry place. His lyrics are less direct than previous albums, and notably less narratively focused, though closer “All Along”—the album’s prettiest song—cements the rage that is sonically present throughout, albeit in a less frightening way. “You wasted my time,” he proclaims mid-song, adding, “Deep down I never felt right / Even now, sometimes that feeling’s a lie.” It is more blunt, more clearly presented than Hadreas’ words are elsewhere on this effort; most of the album’s lyrics are camouflaged by Portishead member Adrian Utley’s production and instrumental accompaniment by Alan Wyffels and Hervé Bécart. Hadreas is being assertive without being bitter. “I don’t need your love / I don’t need you to understand / I need you to listen,” he sings in closing. How could we not?