Friday, October 3, 2014

album review: 'too bright' by perfume genius

Okay, when you become a music critic, you eventually realize that outside of the generally accepted musical acts that everyone is expected to know, there's also a list of critically acclaimed independent singer-songwriters that are beloved by huge chunks of the critical public, and yet your average music fan will never have heard of the majority of these acts. And in this case, there's a reason why they have never received the slightest bit of mainstream airplay - they're weird, they write uncomfortable songs with offbeat subject matter, they opt for eclectic instrumentation or production that is used to enhance the song's atmosphere over what many would deem traditionally accessible. 

In other words, they fall into a category I like to call Pitchfork Approved Singer-Songwriters, or PASS for short, indicative of the common and frequently unfair response from everyone else. It might be hard for most to understand why critics love these acts, especially when they frequently display less polish, cohesion, or even visible talent in comparison with most, and thus it becomes a bit of a balancing act to sort out those who who might deserve said acclaim and those who can just play to that critical audience's sensibilities exceptionally well. 

Perfume Genius definitely falls into that category. The stage name for Seattle-based singer-songwriter and baroque pop artist Mike Hadreas, Perfume Genius broke into the indie scene with Learning in 2010, a gorgeously melodic record full of lo-fi fuzz, rattling pianos, and uncomfortably explicit songs that didn't shy away from controversial subject matter. And I get why he got the critical acclaim he did: despite the fact he wasn't a stellar pianist or singer, Hadreas brought a warmth and raw honesty to his material that felt authentic and real and balanced the real darkness in his songs quite well, filled with little details that really set a vivid scene and left plenty unspoken in the subtext. Now the risk with this sort of material is that the quickest way to raise the stakes is to go darker which can be an even trickier tonal balance, but Perfume Genius went in a different direction, instead exposing more vulnerability and more complicated portraits on his second album Put Your Back N 2 It, an album that wouldn't be out-of-place in today's indie scene with its cleaner production, focus on reverb, and heavier percussion - and like Lykke Li who would follow him, he made it work because of a continued focus on melody above all else even as the instrumentation got slightly more diverse. And with songs like the damn near transcendent title track, it's no surprise the album got the acclaim - it deserved it.

And so now he's back with his third album Too Bright - would Perfume Genius be able to sustain his streak and sound, even as the indie scene has gotten more crowded with artists in his vein?

Well, in a way he does, in that this album is goddamn fantastic, one of the best of the year and featuring some absolutely stellar songs from a performer who is maturing as an artist incredibly well. Is it perfect? No, but it might just be my favourite Perfume Genius record because it feels the most expansive, intricate, and fully formed of any of his releases. And what I love about Too Bright by Perfume Genius is something wonderfully simple: it takes the vulnerability and internal focus that characterized his first two records and flips it the other way. Instead of inviting us into his claustrophobic world, he's stepping into ours and daring us to meet his eyes.

So let's start with Mike Hadreas himself - and really, what I've liked about him from the start is all still here. Raw honesty that came through in every quiver of his voice, this time belied by a simmering anger that never quite explodes but is always present. It's impressive how intense some tracks on this album can be given Hadreas' voice, because let's face it, without the benefit of pitch-shifting, he does not cut a traditionally imposing figure behind the microphone. And oh, does he know that, and chooses to make up for it with every trick in his arsenal, partially through raw charisma on tracks like 'Queen' that owe something of a debt to Hedwig & The Angry Itch and the eponymous rock band, half through hazy, expansive vocal effects and a richly textured mix, and half through sheer power unlike anything I've heard from him before. It's incredible how much raw emotion he can wrench his voice without destroying it on songs like 'Fool' or 'My Body' while still coming across as poised.

Granted, his instrumentation and production definitely help. This album has been advertised as his most lush and expansive to date, and that's not wrong. Sure, you get the melodic and minimalist class of 'I Decline', the gorgeous shimmering keys and upright bass on 'Don't Let Them In', the beautiful wall of strings on 'No Good' that gains the slightest hint of texture on its lower end as it fades back as musical punctuation, the sad timbre of the piano and strings on 'Too Bright' that has this high flutter during the crescendo that sends a chill down my spine every time, to probably the most 'conventional' song in 'All Along' with the washed out guitars that drops into a smooth yet textured lounge vibe at the back half of the song. But where this album gets interesting is where it expands its sonic palette to include harsher synthesizers courtesy of Portishead's Adrien Utley, dark snarls of distortion, and the impeccably crisp drums of Jon Parish, most notable for playing with PJ Harvey. And what amazed me was how often this experimentation worked so damn well. At its mildest, 'Fool' has a thick, mid-range synth against great snaps, drumwork, and a steady, creaky bass thrum courtesy of Ali Chant, until the track changes midsong for a glorious swell of restrained organ and shimmering synths that makes you feel like you're standing in the eye of a hurricane. And that's the most normal: 'Queen' has a more aggressive synth tone and gospel backing vocals and features alternately one of the best keyboard tones I've heard all year or a primal shriek of distortion that perfectly fits the desperate drama of the track. And the songs only get darker from there 'My Body' is all simmering bass as Hadreas' voice goes ever deeper before erupting in a low gurgle of distortion that perfectly punctuates the shrill tone of his high distorted vocals before a chilling synth slides into the upper end and the song breaks into a squealing storm of booming drums and synth. And I thought Swans made the most unnervingly demonic music of the year, because from there Perfume Genius goes borderline industrial with his hollow, low-end synth that wouldn't be out of place on an early NIN or Depeche Mode album before throwing in guitar screams, growling bass, spiky percussion, distorted child voices, and breathless howls that send a chill down my spine. There are only two instrumental experiments I don't feel work all that well, the first being the synth choice on 'Longpig' - just a little too icy even despite the great percussion line of the song. The second is on 'I'm A Mother', a song intensely claustrophobic with Hadreas' thin voice pitch-shifted down against the heaviness of the mix and eerie backing vocals. I don't tend to like pitch-shifting as it is, and this song just feels a little inert and actively seems to make the lyrics impossible to distinguish outside of fractured fragments.

So let's talk about the songwriting, shall we? Let me start by stating my biggest nitpick with this album, and that is that there isn't any of the intricate stories that Hadreas used to sketch such vivid pictures of his life - and their absence is intentional because this album is not really about him, at least not in the same way. While his neuroses and fears fuel this album's words, the vivid self-flagellation of the wordplay on this album - and make no mistake, it's often stark and quite graphic - the origin of those fears is not located within, but driven by external force. It adds reality to the undercurrent of rage lurking beneath several of these songs. Some songs are straightforwardly defiant, like 'Queen', a song that seems rooted as both a gay anthem and a song that epitomizes the visceral fears of every homophobe. And as much as he seems to take a fierce pride in that image, it also seems to show his intense discomfort in his own skin on songs like 'Don't Let Them In' and 'My Body' - and yet it's important to note this discomfort comes not from internal questions but external pressure, attempts to make him conform to something that might be easier, but would be dishonest of his true nature.

And he rejects that conformity. The opening track is a prime example of that self-awareness symbolized by the repeating 'I can see for miles', declining the 'angel above the grid' and walking his own way. And if there is a real want from Hadreas, it's simple: he craves love on his terms and for his love to be reciprocated. It's what makes 'Fool' such a sad song, as his partner does not reciprocate - something Hadreas knows and considers himself a fool and a buffoon but he stays anyway. It's what makes the unrequited love of a partner ripped away by death on 'No Good' all the more heartbreaking, and he doesn't need to say the cause because it's well enough implied. And this is where we get to the crux of the album, as Hadreas has described the title of the record describing all of the good things he could have or could do to make his life easier, and yet he doesn't approach because of fear of the unknown - an interesting parallel considering many would make the argument that homophobes fear what they don't know or understand. Yet he inverts that fear, and refuses to be bound or held back by it - it's a waste of his time. He doesn't need their love or even their understanding of his choices or his life - he just needs them to listen to him as he is, because that's where the real purity is. Ultimately the theme of this album surrounds not succumbing to fear or self-loathing, recognizing their roots are outside of oneself, and while it might be easier to give in, it ultimately will prove that much stronger to stand secure in all of one's own flaws and force the truth on those who would pass a judgement they themselves could not withstand.

So if you can't tell by now, I love this album. I love that it's heartbreakingly human and real, vivid detail and stark shades. I love the melodic focus and fascinating instrumental tonal choices, that it's willing to go force a dark atmosphere not to accentuate the image but to place it in contrast. I love the message at the end that is very confrontational, but feels earned all the same from an artist willing to show painful honesty and self-awareness. In short, Too Bright by Perfume Genius is one of the best albums of the year, hands down, a 9/10 and the highest of my recommendations. Folks, don't PASS on this guy - it is some of the most terrifyingly melodic and beautiful music you will hear this year, and is definitely worth your consideration. 

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