Over the course of two astonishing albums, Perfume Genius, aka Seattle native Mike Hadreas, cemented his place as a singer-songwriter of rare frankness, creating songs that, while achingly emotional, offered empathy and hope, rather than judgment or handwringing. Sparse, gorgeous and with Hadreas’ quavering vocals often only accompanied by piano, 2010’s Learning and 2012’s Put Yr Back N 2 It told uncommonly beautiful tales of a life lived on the dark side.
Perfume Genius first caught our attention in 2010 with his debut album Learning, an album of delicate contradictions – among the sparse piano textures the man known as Mike Hadreas sang of serial killers and child abuse, backlit by his own struggle with substance abuse. Almost half a decade later, Hadreas has decided to reinvent his sound, with forthcoming third album Too Bright featuring a sonic palette of stylised, brittle electronics that now matches the quixotic strangeness of the lyrics.
Yet tonight, this new aesthetic is played down in favour of a setlist which draws from all three albums equally. It's a smart move: the results do not feel so much like a reckless reinvention than a perfectly manicured day-trip into the dark heart of Perfume Genius's mind: where Lana Del Rey's exotic plaza meets Will Oldham's hillbilly horror.
“Tonight there might be an imaginative gap between the confidently confrontational voice in the song and the shy character on stage (to wit: there is no sashaying), but this is still a quiet triumph.” — The Guardian
Dressed in a sleek couture suit, worn sans shirt, Hadreas holds the audience with a nervous energy: during the cold-wave electro of new song Your Body he rocks back and forth, wrapping the microphone lead around his tiny hand. In a musical moment of dramatic unease, he stares at the crowd dead-on, with the speedy intensity of a Blanche DuBois. But then there is Learning, where nerves turn into homely charm, as he sings the call-to-arms line: "No one will answer your prayers until you take off that dress", sweetly assisted by boyfriend Alan Wyffels on piano.
It's an individualistic sentiment, shared in gobsmacking new single Queen, with its strident rhythm, oriental keyboard riff and instantly quotable line: "No family is safe, when I sashay." Tonight there might be an imaginative gap between the confidently confrontational voice in the song and the shy character on stage (to wit: there is no sashaying), but this is still a quiet triumph.