A term I have never particularly cared for when it comes to discussing music is the term “grower”. Ideally, this term should be applied to artists whose music is almost so seamless that it takes multiple listens to really uncover the hidden layers and intricacies scattered throughout the album. More often than not, though, it’s used to apply to just about anything that someone figures out they really like after a third listen – “Oh, wow, I listened to this One Direction song a few times and have discovered I really like it! What a grower”. Sorry, it doesn’t work like that. You could argue that some of the most acclaimed albums of all time are “growers”: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Radiohead’s Kid A. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I would argue that Perfume Genius enters the debate with his third album, Too Bright.
Up until this point, Perfume Genius, the stage name of Mike Hadreas, has focused on moody, introspective piano-driven music — his first single, “Mr. Peterson”, described a suicidal high school teacher who also happened to be a pedophile. His first two albums, Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It, would continue to focus on mostly piano driven ballads, with lyrics focusing on the introspective and the personal. Part of the strength of those two albums was the searing intimacy found on many of the songs. Hadreas was able to take songs that sounded like they were about intensely personal subjects and make them, instead, sound universal. The issue Hadreas would frequently run into, and what stopped those first two albums from perhaps breaking out to a larger audience, is that you can only listen to the morose, no matter how beautiful it sounds, for so long. Eventually the music can start to run together and any sort of effect the music might have otherwise had is instead rendered null and void.
This was my original issue with Too Bright. Certain songs stood out instantly because they were different from anything Perfume Genius had ever released: “Queen” sounds like a queer anthem, with pulsating synths and what sounds like a chorus of fabulous marines grunting in the background. “Grid” distorts Hadreas’ voice into an unearthly kind of wail while the song spins around him. “Longpig” employs synthesizers and layered vocals in a way that sounds absolutely nothing like what you would expect Perfume Genius to sound like. These songs stood out partially because of the decided shift in instrumentation from Hadreas but also because they were just really damn good songs. The downside was that these songs were so immediately accessible that the slower, more challenging tracks seemed to blend together. If you only listen to the album once, this can leave the impression that Hadreas is a pretty good musician but difficult to really penetrate and enjoy. That was certainly my first impression.
Something happened, though, as I kept listening and prepared to write this review. Songs I had originally forgotten suddenly revealed surprising moments that elevated the entire song. Songs that I already really loved revealed layers and second meanings that elevated the album. Take, for instance, the pretty glorious lyric on “Queen”: “No family is safe when I sashay”. Hadreas’ homosexuality is a topic in plenty of his songs and videos and, on a song as direct as “Queen”, it’s easy to read that lyric and Hadreas’ delivery of it as a strong sort of rallying cry. But a second listen reveals, perhaps, a bit of darkness behind the aural sneer of that lyric. There’s a bit of fear, a bit of uncertainty. Hadreas’ voice quivers ever-so-slightly, but just enough to suggest an unease present. The rest of “Queen” focuses on this balance between the self confidence of being gay and the world’s perception of you. In just a few lines, Hadreas goes from “flower bloom at my feet” to “cracked, riddled, peeling with disease”. There’s an internal struggle in “Queen”, one that is present throughout the entire album.
Take, for example, a line found on the very first song of the album, “I Decline”: “Angel just above the grid / Open, smiling, reaching out”. In the next breath, Hadreas sings, “No thanks, I decline”. There are plenty of ways to read the interaction between these lines, but there’s a small bit of comfort in how Hadreas gives the option, at least, of the angel being there, even if he declines. Fast forward a few songs to the almost demonic sounding “Grid” as Hadreas now says, “There is no angel / above the grid / maybe baby / this is it”. The comfort present on the opening track of the album has now completely eroded as Hadreas finds himself alone and facing the reality of the world before him. What strengthens this change of events are the songs that precede “Grid” and all of their subtleties. Ranging from topics relating to homosexuality, body image, and loneliness, Hadreas tackles issues both personal and representative. On “No Good”, Hadreas describes being on the outside looking in, evoking imagery of a chalk outline traced on the ground. “My Body” obliquely tackles Crohn’s Disease, an illness Hadreas suffers from: “I wear my body like a rotted peach / You can have it if you can handle the stink”. Certainly not pleasant imagery, but still a reality.
This shift from “I Decline”, notably the song most similar to Hadreas’ earlier output, to the frenzied sounds of “Grid”, the song most different from Hadreas’ earlier output, summarizes the main thesis of the album. In the press release for the album, Hadreas stated, “If people see me as some sea-witch with penis tentacles that are always prodding and poking and seeking to convert the muggles – well, here she comes!” What we’ve witnessed over the course of the album is a singer formerly worn down by their own insecurities start to shed those thoughts and emerge as something else. There’s a silent but ever present rage behind many of his lyrics, and by the time we reach album closer “All Along”, we’ve witnessed this transformation. It’s frequently uncomfortable and usually hard to understand, but Too Bright is Hadreas’ way of advancing his own self. There are still insecurities and there are still doubts, but this signals a new step forward and a plea to hear him out. As he sings on the final lines of the final song, “I don’t need your love / I don’t need you to understand / I need you to listen”. Too Bright is a challenging album to listen to and really understand but multiple listens reveal the layers and intricacies inherent in Hadreas’ music. The message contained within is one of empowerment, accepting the flaws and the mistakes and the judgments but moving past that and accepting yourself, warts and all.