Perfume Genius
Luke Gilford
By Nolan Feeney
September 23, 2014

After crafting two albums of hauntingly introspective, largely piano-based material, Seattle singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas — better known as Perfume Genius — is blowing up in more ways than one. First, there’s his sound: on Too Bright (out now on Matador), he employs fuzzy synthesizers, distorted guitars and ghostly wails in a sonic transformation that’s akin to jumping from 2-D vision to 3-D.

His lyrics, too, feel more forceful, exploring topics like queer identity politics and relationships in ways that are more unsettling and confrontational than before — though maybe that’s just his musical evolution, aided by producer Adrian Utley of Portishead, crystallizing what has been there all along. Hadreas has said the new album is about “an underlying rage that has slowly been growing since age 10 and has just begun to bubble up,” and it shows on tracks like first single “Queen,” a song about gay panic that tries to flip the judgment and fear he observes walking down the street back on his voyeurs: “No family is safe when I sashay,” he sings.

It’s the album’s flashiest moment, and its biggest departure from his back catalog, but it’s also more of a slow burn than an explosion. The rage explored here is usually a quiet, droning one, sometimes aimed as much at himself as the outside world: Hadreas, a sufferer of Crohn’s disease, has a particular knack for exploring the ways the human body can be both oppressive and empowering when you’re feeling like a freak.

As with Perfume Genius’ past albums, the tracks are put together beautifully, except when they intentionally aim for ugliness, like with the eruptions of static on “My Body” or the eerie, pitched-down vocals on “I’m a Mother,” a track about pressures to have a family. Those moments are intriguing, considering Hadreas has said he pursued a more commercial sound on this record. While there’s nothing on Too Bright that feels like the kind of universally accessible material that will set charts and radio playlists on fire — this isn’t quite the big pop transformation some have made it out to be — it’s hard not to experience this album as a breakthrough nonetheless. Here, he doesn’t just hold your attention — he demands it.

Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com.

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