What I Listened To When I Listened To Music This Week – Perfume Genius – Too Bright

To quote an (in)famous Manic Street Preachers slogan from back in 1993 “All rock’n’roll is homosexual” a statement that is very, very Manics in its origin. It’s also oddly quite profound, it may sound built to shock, but it’s actually got a lot of truth to it. Throughout the history of alternative/rock music there has always existed a fascination with all things gay.

From David Bowie to Mick Jagger, Pet Shop Boys to Nirvana, the history of alternative music is littered with a huge number of artists, influenced by the gay scene. David Bowie famously came out as bi-sexual only to renege on that claim, and admit he’d always been “a closet heterosexual” and that his interest in homosexual and bi-sexual culture was more a result of wanting to flout the norm rather than any real gay feelings. Pet Shop Boys were hugely influential on the gay scene long before Neil Tennant came out in the mid 90s. Boy George’s androgynous appearance may have made him an icon to the gay scene, but when asked about his sexuality he always batted off the question and famously replied that he preferred a nice cup of tea to sex, it wasn’t until the mid 90s, long after his musical peak he went public with his sexuality.

Why has it always been acceptable to borrow from the gay scene but never ok to actually be gay? Why did Boyzone and Westlife have to put out fake stories linking members to high-profile women to cover the fact that members of the bands were gay? Why did it take till 2012 for an openly gay musician to top the American Music Charts?

That musician was Adam Lambert. He was also the first openly gay musician to start his career signed to a major label, why? Because he won American Idol, it took a talent show, voted for by the public, for a major label to sign an openly gay musician. Elton John may be one of the most well respected artists in the history of music, however since he came out in the late 80s, he’s never had a number one album.

Like sexism and racism, homophobia is still a major battle for the music industry, why? Because it’s a major issue for society as a whole, it’s easy to point the finger. It’s easy to say, there’s a lack of female musicians headlining festivals because the industries sexist, there’s a lack of black managers because football fans are racists, or gay musicians don’t sell records. Ultimately perhaps it’s time that society was given the chance to make its own mind up. Let’s have St Vincent headline Glastonbury, let’s have Chris Powell manage England, let’s have John Grant at number one, the sexists, the racists and the homophobes will exist, but the voices of the vast majority of sensible, tolerant people might just drown them out, and what a beautiful thing that would be.

PERFUME GENIUS – TOO BRIGHT

perfume

In the build up to this album Mike Haderas aka Perfume Genius has been quick to talk it up as a musical u-turn, a move away from his previous work which he, brilliantly and very harshly, describes as “mid-tempo Adele songs.” Whilst he previously “carefully plotted each chord and lyric like math” now he promised us a more “natural, visceral and unfiltered” sound. Having been promised that opening track, I Decline, is possibly the albums most shocking moment, because it sounds exactly like a Perfume Genius track! Plodding piano chords, check! Rich, gorgeous, fragile vocal, check! Clear, emotive lyrical content, “I can see for miles, the same old line, no thanks, I decline” check! It’s beautiful and all, but wasn’t this meant to be a career defining change of direction?

Worry not though fans of emergency stops. I Decline is almost entirely misrepresentative of the album as a whole. From the moment second track Queen sashays into your ears, it’s impossible not to feel the Perfume Genius you thought you knew on previous albums Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It, has been replaced, or perhaps more accurately upgraded. Perfume Genius is dead, long live Perfume Genius. It’s not that there aren’t tracks that sound like the Perfume Genius of old, it’s just that they’re now just part of a richer, darker, musical tapestry. What were once his entire calling card, are now the supporting cast, often playing the role of a brief, gentle moment of respite between the brutal and, as promised, visceral moments elsewhere. The juxtaposition of light and dark throughout is stunning, it’s like being invited to see the two sides of the man himself. Yes he can be fragile and sad, but behind that is an anger, and whether he wants it to or not, that’s now pouring out and dripping onto the record for the whole world to see.

The albums lead single, Queen, is simply incredible! Lyrically an angry, bile fuelled assault on homophobia and gay stereotypes. He spouts off stereotypes “Cracked, peelin’, riddled with disease” and fears “casing the barracks for an ass to break and harness into the fold” Musically, it starts all punchy distorted piano chords, and choral backing, before the drums crash in, and the swaying lilt of a synthesiser, builds up to the brilliant line “no family is safe, when I sashay”, where musically it erupts via a simplistic, oddly jaunty, almost whistling, waltz. A few listens and you’ll find yourself constantly sashaying along to this the albums gorgeous hazy highlight: it’s stunningly good. If you’re not listening carefully both Queen and the following track Fool, could create the feeling you’re heading to a feel good 80’s electro-pop album. Fool in particular, with it’s reverberating finger clicks and gentle synths, sound undeniably poppy… until it goes all churchy, via a buzzing organ, and then comes back out the other side again with finger-clicks surely lifted straight from the Grease soundtrack, and a jaunty piano, accompanies the line “I do a little move, to a giggling flute, I plume and I plume, like a buffoon”, a line that couldn’t sound more like Wild Beasts if it tried.

No Good is one of the aforementioned delightful moments of light, lilting piano balladry. There’s a rare moment of happiness as he sings “I took his hand in mine for a little while and everything was alright” before breaking into a beautiful piano-solo, a reminder of just what a wonderfully talented pianist we’re listening to, his fingers float gently over the keys, as his voice returns distant, unintelligible, soaring high above it. If that’s the light, My Body, is the first moment when you’re undeniably into the shade, over a low bassy rumble, his voice echos, with a theatrical warble reminiscent of Hayden Thorpe, before the whole thing collapses into a clanking industrial track, his voice pitch shifted, and almost manic, it’s a thoroughly disturbing listen. Whilst previously his lyrics took centre stage, here’s they’re almost lost into the wall of noise crashing around him, listen carefully though and they’re as brutal as the soundscape “I wear my body like a rotting peach, you can have me if you can handle the stink” he spits, before it’s lost again into layers of distorted vocals and the whole thing grinds a close with a harsh electronic squelch. It’s intense, brutal and overwhelming, and when the next track, Don’t Let Them In, sees him returning to the gentle piano ballad, you’d be forgiven for thinking you imagined the whole thing, though hidden in that gentle piano number, are equally disturbing lyrical revelations, it’s a beautifully constructed tail of an unwanted, well meaning guests. “Don’t let them In, I am too tired to hold myself carefully and wink when they circle the fact I am trapped in this body” he pleads, before admitting “I have violent dreams about that couple” the piano resolves to a delightful string of trilling chords, as he pleads once more “don’t let them in, they’re well intended but each comment rattles some deep ancient queen”

Grid, revisits the lyrics of opening track I Decline, but whilst that was a gentle jaunt around the piano, now it’s bassier, harsher and electronic, a slow build of tension throughout, he rushes through the words, as percussion, pops and fizzes around him, he’s suddenly joined by a chanting, bansheeish, chorus of children, who screech, wail and holler and may very well steal your soul. It’s intense and harrowing, at once brilliant and disturbing. It is rare music is actually terrifying!

The albums not without it’s flaws, most obviously Longpig a misguided venture into the sort of far-eastern electronic with which The Knife made their name, it just sounds tinny and cheap. Especially when followed by the bonkers, I’m A Mother. The track finds a low buzzing synth, paired with a heavily affected, pitch shifted vocal, it sounds simultaneously a bit like a police recording of a kidnappers ransom demands and Kid-A era Radiohead. Picking out words is a strain, as is forming any opinion on a track this entirely unique and unnerving, my current thought is that it could quite possibly be genius, but it’ll certainly divide opinion, and make a lot of people want to run away and hide in a cave where nobody can hurt them anymore.

After that the warm tinkling piano of Too Bright, terribly sad as it is, it something of a relief. He seems to almost puts these moments of beautiful orchestral balladry in to ease us back into the real world. With a gentle flute and warm backing vocal, it’s a real sunrise in the storm moment, and it’s beautiful. The album could easily have stopped there, but luckily he had to good sense to fit All Along in a closer, starting of with just a buzzing Rhodes piano accompanying some beautiful vocal harmonising. Latterly a drum and a slide guitar join the party, recalling REM’s masterpiece Country Feedback. Haderas’s voice is as magnificent here, as indeed it is throughout the album as a whole, and as he sings “deep down I never did feel right, even now sometimes that feelings alive” or the stunning closing plea “I don’t need your love, I don’t need you to understand, I need you to listen” and listen you should, because this a truly vital album, a masterpiece from an artist at the very top of his game, it’s magnificent.

Too Bright is out now on Turnstile (UK) and Matador (US)

Perfume Genius tours the UK in November, including a date at the Islington Assembly Hall in London

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