Perfume Genius: Shimmering Synth Ballads About All His Icky Feelings

Perfume Genius. (Luke Gifford)
Perfume Genius. (Luke Gifford)

The Seattle-based singer Mike Hadreas, who performs under the moniker Perfume Genius, has the power to soothe you. His last album, 2012’s “Put Your Back N 2 It,” was a testament to his ability to serenade to stirring piano accompaniment. But there is something sticky and uncomfortable at the core of even his most delicate ballads. On his most recent album, 2014’s “Too Bright,” he rips off the shimmering shroud to examine the gory innards beneath.

In Hadreas’ telling, the critically acclaimed “Too Bright” was born out of frustration with his normal writing habits and the pressure he felt to compose smooth, easily-digestible songs. “I felt really locked into the way I was writing,” explains Hadreas, who performs at the Sinclair in Cambridge on March 20. “And I thought my voice could only sing certain notes. And I don’t know, I kind of got sick of all the over-thinking I was doing, of all of it. I decided to kind of let loose, and started distorting my piano and screaming and trying to sing notes that I didn’t know I could sing.”

“Too Bright” features synths that crackle more often than they shine. Hadreas employs, by turns, a ragged falsetto and an echoey Elvis croon. Sometimes his voice glows with golden multiplicity, but now and then something rumbles ominously in the lower register—an overdriven bass, perhaps, or a keyboard fed through distortion. His songs are downtempo but succinct, as he prefers to lean languorously into a single idea rather than plod deliberately through pop’s structural prescriptions. The arrangements are sparse, but they feel bottomless, too, like black fissures yawning in the earth.

According to Hadreas, he could have gone “full Adele” but instead opted to go “full PJ Harvey” and embrace his rawest instincts. He says his earliest influences were Harvey, Liz Phair and Fiona Apple, artists whose “strength I could more closely identify with” than that of “a lot of male singers.” Hadreas was especially moved by Phair’s 1993 album “Exile in Guyville.” “She sang about a lot of things I didn’t know you could talk about, or say out loud. And she was singing really explicitly, in a really proud and strong way. I had never really heard music like that. And it switched how I thought about music and writing.”

The songs on “Too Bright” are penetrating studies in self-loathing and alienation. On the album’s first single, “Queen,” Hadreas—a man with a predilection for scarlet lipstick and stilettos—aims a lacerating wit at the homophobia he so often encounters: “Don’t you know your Queen/ Cracked/ Peelin’/ Riddled with disease/ Don’t you know me,” he sings, defiant. “No family is safe/ When I sashay.” “Queen” drips with irony, an eyebrow raised in defense of Hadreas’ difference. In the music video, he leaps up onto a boardroom table in high heels, chest bare beneath his suit jacket, and vogues energetically while a group of businessmen looks on, horrified.

The ire that animates “Queen” is something Hadreas has grappled with since he first began to sense, as a boy, that something about him was different. “At the same time [that] I was embarrassed of myself, I was furious at everyone for making me feel that way—you know, at least that’s what I was thinking they were doing,” he explains. “All these normal people or whatever. So it was just both of those things in equal measure, growing. And I’ve shaken off a lot of the awkwardness and a lot of the shame I have about being different. Especially after making music, where I’m talking about a lot of things I would have been terrorized for growing up ... and being supported for them, or even basically making a career out of it. But a lot of the anger is still there.”

Just as powerful, however, are the songs in which Hadreas expresses a more ambivalent resolve. The opening number on “Too Bright,” “I Decline,” offers a plaintive rebuttal to the urge to self-destruct. “Angel just above the grid/ Open, smiling, reaching,” Hadreas sings over slow, studied piano chords. He sighs, swallowing the final note: “That’s alright/ I decline.” Life on this earthly plane requires a certain resilience, but it is not exactly a triumph.

“Sometimes all the things I’m writing about, I don’t have them fully figured out yet,” Hadreas admits. “Even after I write the song, it’s not like I’m an authority on it. ... A lot of the things I’m upset about are still kind of messy to talk about.”

That messiness yields some of his most affecting results. In “Fool,” he explores the shame of capitulating to a particular gay stereotype, the sassy fashionista who no one takes too seriously: “I plume and I plume/ Like a buffoon.” In “Body” he reveals a gnawing aversion to his physical self—“I wear my body like a rotted peach”—but in “Don’t Let Them In” transforms it into a wistful daydream: “In an alternate ribbon of time/ My dances/ Were sacred/ My lisp was evidence/ I spoke for/ Both spirits.” The angel from “I Decline” reappears in “Grid,” only to be erased, swapped for stuttering percussion and a more cynical outlook: “There is no angel/ Above the grid/ Maybe baby/ This is it.”

“A lot of those icky feelings I have about myself, they can be really big during the day, or they can be just really tiny and underneath what I’m doing,” says Hadreas. “It’s just really helpful for me to be really honest about them and to fully look at them, in the hopes that they’ll go away, when I do that, a little bit.”

“I mean, just on a personal level it’s kind of working, too,” he adds. “It takes a certain amount of weird, f--ked up confidence to play all these songs, that I didn’t really have. But I kind of have more of it now, naturally, after the tour.”

Hadreas made his network television debut on “Late Show With David Letterman” in October. On YouTube you can watch him perform “Queen” in a billowy white double-breasted suit and a black leather collar. As the band ramps up towards the final chord, he looks directly into the audience and almost unconsciously shimmies his shoulders. It is a strange gesture of levity that is, in its own way, a show of strength.

Headshot of Amelia Mason

Amelia Mason Senior Arts & Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.



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