There’s so much horror strewn across the first two Perfume Genius albums, it’s amazing it took this long for Mike Hadreas to scream. The strangled, faraway shrieks that split the thick synth bass on “Grid,” the second single from Too Bright, come through like the screams you find yourself letting loose when you jolt yourself out of a nightmare. If the first two Perfume Genius albums played something like nightmares—beautiful, full of danger, guided by pristine internal logic—then Too Bright is where Hadreas finally yells himself awake.
While Hadreas’ lyrics made the most powerful moments of Perfume Genius’s 2010 debut Learning and 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It, Too Bright folds its words into startling, varied instrumental textures. The album’s first single “Queen” thundered in earlier this year full of squeals and barks that sounded entirely alien to the Seattle songwriter’s damaged cabaret. It’s Hadreas’ first banger, barbed with lines like “no family is safe when I sashay” as though he were finally accepting a role as menacer rather than menaced. But in the space where a hook should go, Hadreas’ voice dissolves. His words give way to shrill whistles, disembodied echoes and a “woof!” taken straight from Kanye’s reserve. His energy turns wordless, yet loses none of its power.
Instead of discrete points of drama, like “Mr. Peterson” and the lovesick “Hood,” Too Bright’s lyrics suspend ongoing motifs through the album’s length. Hadreas envisions the body and the life inside it as objects to be consumed; on “My Body,” he warns that he’s a stinking, rotted peach, while on “Grid” he postulates that earthly life itself is “a diamond, swallowed and shit and swallowed again”—eternal return as a gem circling through the digestive tract. “Longpig” takes its title from a slang term for human flesh prepared like pork, and the spiky, festering song is every bit as horrific.
For a good half of the album, though, Hadreas stays behind the piano far from immediate danger. These songs supply sad relief from Too Bright’s industrial terrors, giving Hadreas the chance to turn his eye inward. While “Grid” and “Queen” burst with lines like throwing stars to be flung at the nearest hater, “Don’t Let Them In” moves through soothing, introspective gestures. “In an alternate ribbon of time, my dances were sacred,” he sings as music box trills spring up around him. “Too Bright” also works as an elegant counterpoint to the louder songs’ brash synths and visceral imagery, its piano piped with flutes, its melodies high, sad and yearning.
So much of Too Bright seems to reach for a higher life beyond the body, something purer and more permanent than this vessel that ages and rots and shits itself—an “angel just above the grid,” as Hadreas puts it in opener “I Decline.” He doesn’t find his escape, but he does show that both physicality and its decay can be gripped tight like a weapon.