Mike Hadreas is getting his blood all over your new couch, ruining your dress, frightening all your guests. He’s sashaying around your dinner table in a ragged skinsuit, and now your mother is crying, and your father is packing you a suitcase. He’s screaming at the top of his lungs from the bottom of the well, and he isn’t going to shut up until you listen.
Hadreas’s first two albums as Perfume Genius were dispatches from the periphery, grotesque portraits of love poisoned by violence and fear. Tracks like “Mr. Petersen” and “17” recounted spare tales of unspeakable trauma through Hadreas’s frayed warble, surrounded with childlike piano and empty space—desperate attempts to make sense of devastation by spinning it into something affecting.
But now he’s had some time to think, and he’s mad as hell. Where he used to craft fragile beauty out of despair, with “Too Bright,” Perfume Genius fashions enduring beauty out of fiery, unapologetic rage. The album’s 11 tracks compose an astonishing document of queer fury, an avowed refusal to remain silent about the horrors of living in a world that’s always suspicious of your body.
The unflinching honesty that characterized Hadreas’s previous work is still intact, and with the help of Portishead’s Adrian Utley and a newly aggressive sonic palette, he’s managed to weaponize it. Instead of shying away from the most deep-seated fears plaguing the queer community—abuse, abandonment, body dysmorphia, the lingering stigma of HIV/AIDS—Hadreas does the opposite, embodying these fears, wearing them like armor, turning them against their creators. On “Queen,” the album’s debut single and in many ways its thesis statement, Hadreas saunters over a bed of distorted guitar and florid keyboards, gleefully proclaiming that “No family is safe / When I sashay.”
It is this fury, combined with Hadreas’s directness and musical prowess, that gives “Too Bright” its inescapable bite. “Fool” starts out with unflappable cool, with Hadreas delivering lines about dresses and couches like a dutiful cast member of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”—but then he stops the song in its tracks and lets loose the most gorgeous falsetto scream this side of Sigur Rós. The soulful finger snaps return as if nothing happened, but now he’s “Bleeding out / On the couch you bought / That I picked out.”
As the album progresses, Hadreas bares his teeth with increasing menace. “My Body” is a two-minute burlesque show in a padded cell, its queasy bass throb giving out to an eruption of electronic viscera as Hadreas masquerades as Jame Gumb impersonating Dita Von Teese: “I wear my body like a rotted peach / You can have it if you handle the stink.”
“Too Bright” reaches its darkest and its most daring point with surreal “Grid.” In case you’ve forgotten that AIDS was known as “gay-related immune deficiency” until 1984, “Grid” weds the ignominious acronym to the city streets the disease continues to ravage—“There is no angel above the grid / Maybe baby, this is it,” sings Hadreas. “I’m a Mother” drags Radiohead’s Vocoder-ravaged “Kid A” to the bottom of a hole—over a hazy death waltz, Hadreas defiles his suffocating voice to the point where the only discernible words are the lines “Down here / I’m a mother.” It’s the most disturbing track on an album that dares you to stop listening.
Yet whenever the darkness seems like it’s just about to overwhelm, Hadreas lets a little light in with several more traditional piano numbers, which recast the monstrosities on the heavier tracks in more human terms. “No Good” wonders if it’s possible to make a “Safe place for the heart to hang / When the body’s no good,” finding temporary solace when Hadreas takes “his hand in mine for a little while.” The title track is a paean to integrity in the face of certain violence, and Hadreas minces no words when evoking the potential consequences of being yourself: “I’ll try, I’ll stay / Hung and drawn / Laid upon the highway.” These tracks may be quieter, but they’re no less forceful for it.
The tension doesn’t fully dissipate until closing track “All Along,” the closest Hadreas has ever gotten to pure pop balladry. Over soft electric guitar, he wonders out loud about the gay man’s place in the universe: “What drives me to my man? / Earthly or divine or otherwise?” He humbly concludes, “It’s no business of mine / You wasted my time.” As the song blossoms into a closing-time slow dance, over soft drums and gleaming steel guitar, Hadreas entreats, “I don’t need your love / I don’t need you to understand / I need you to listen.”
He never promised it would be an easy listen, but it shouldn’t be, when there’s still so much work to be done. “Too Bright” is a relentlessly human declaration of discontent spoken through a crystal-clear queer voice. Mike Hadreas is furious—and you’re allowed to be, too.
—Staff writer Matthew J. Watson can be reached at email@example.com.
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