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Perfume Genius
Too Bright Barnaby Smith , November 25th, 2014 13:25

It's difficult to say that Perfume Genius' previous albums, Learning and Put Your Back N To It, shied away from dark places and didn't have a certain abrasive edge to them. Certainly, the latter of those albums possessed a romantic wistfulness to its lyrics and melodies that complemented the light, rippling piano that echoed Chris Garneau and even Sufjan Stevens. Too Bright however, is an album of bleak riposte and forthright personality, not quite aggressive, but certainly blunt and infused with the energy of social defiance. Any notion of Mike Hadreas being in any way a shy or timid artist requires re-examination.

As a musical statement, Too Bright works as a more fuggy, lo-fi body of work than his previous, with his signature echo-laden piano complemented by the occasional guitar, synths and the odd strings. These textures combine on the sublime 'Queen', where Hadreas explicitly addresses (and taunts) those who recoil from gay culture; a beautifully sardonic attack on fear and mistrust. This message is perhaps overwhelmed though, by the childishly simple synth line, which sits atop the clanging electric guitar with a strut that reflects the song's lyrical boldness. A similar snarl is found on the unprecedented 'My Body', again with an almost brutal chorus and a vocal delivery that grunts out an intimidating challenge.

These tracks are arguably Too Bright's centrepieces (the colossal 'Longpig' can join them too), so brash and colourful are they compared to with more familiar Perfume Genius fare. This certainly has a place here, even if it makes unspectacular songs such as 'Don't Let Them In' a little drab in this company, with its sweet, sparse piano arrangements and fluttering, butterfly-like vocal lines, which, disarmingly begin to sound more and more like Art Garfunkel.

That said, though 'Queen' surely exists as Too Bright's defining piece, 'No Good' comes close to being his greatest song yet; fairly conservatively structured and at just under four minutes is among the record's longest tracks. It may appear a mournful ballad that could sit comfortably on any Perfume Genius record, but the stunningly sad refrain from its backing vocals that closes the song, alongside one of his more emotionally charged piano patterns, elevate it to something hypnotic, with an almost tribal feel. 'No Good' is no riveting sonic adventure, but it is the album's spiritual heart.

Perhaps appropriately, given that the Perfume Genius project has themes of vulnerability and insecurity at its core, Hadreas is not immune to missteps with his newfound passion and clamour. 'Grid', with its repetition of the slightly irritating phrase "maybe baby", does not hit the heights of 'Queen' or 'Longpig', and somehow lacks the fervour that comes from the fusion of ideological punch and leftfield production, despite its propulsive tempo and guttural screams.

When compared with other gay artists for whom issues around their sexuality make up a significant part of their work, Perfume Genius seems remarkably original. Not for him is the theatrical gusto, polemical political engagement or self-aggrandisement of Rufus Wainwright; he lacks the humour, more explicit angst and emotional confidence of John Grant and lacks Garneau's devotion to melodrama and pop. He is hardly Stephin Merritt. He exists independently as a cultural explorer as well as simply a very fine, very sensitive songwriter.

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