With the release of Learning ( Matador Records, 2010 ), Perfume Genius ( a.k.a. Michael Hadreas ) established himself as a troubled sensitive queer singer songwriter involved with melancholy and despair.
Those traitsqueerness, melancholy and despairgot him lumped in with the likes of Boy George, Sam Smith and Rufus Wainwright while creating a brand-new stereotype: sad-eyed gay guy with an astonishing voice and a head full of heartbreak. If you didn't know any better, you could expect the four of them to join Judy Garland in the bar after closing time for a rendition of "The Man that Got Away."
Then, unexpectedly, Genius dropped the video for "Hood," a slight ballad that managed to shatter any preconceived notions of who and what he was. Staring into the camera lens intently while singing and being dressed and feminized by buff, hirsute, Speedo-clad ( and late ) gay-porn star Arpad Miklos sent a bold message: "Don't label me." The video also got an "Unsafe for Family Viewing" warning while striking a touchstone for queer music.
Now it's two full CDs later and consumers have the just-released No Shape ( Matador Records ), in which Genius and producer Blake Mills ( Fiona Apple, John Legend, Alabama Shakes ) have turned all that arch simpering into something unexpected. To top that off, Genius' sold-out show at Lincoln Hall on May 30 veered away from his usual torch-song style into the avant-garde. If some of his recent videos hinted at this artsier direction, they couldn't have prepared anyone for how far he would take it or how soon.
No Shape is still a Perfume Genius CD and there are plenty of quiet, intimate ballads graced with his elegant, tortured singing. "Die 4 You" barely has a melody and the vocal is ultimately a wafer-thin falsetto delivered on a wisp of breath. That's all very fine if you're looking for music to get drunk to while sitting alone in the dark, but at this stage of his career its all a little redundant.
Things pick up a bit on "Go Ahead," with Genius offering a searing rhythm and blues vocal over a bed of percussion and its a thrill hearing him push his voice and rise to the challenge. The kicker here is "Slip Away" which sounds unusually chipper ( for him ): percussive, lush and downright frisky. There is an undeniable vibe of celebration on the recording, along with a particularly catchy and melodious hook and next to all the melodrama and quiet "Slip Away" is like a sudden blast of refrigerated air on a 90-degree day.
At Lincoln Hall, Perfume Genius took things further still. Opener Serpentwithfeet ( vocalist Josiah Wise and collaborator/producer Haxan Cloak ) delivered spontaneous readings from their EP Blisters ( Triangle Records ) and the style was an apt preamble for the headliner. The songsor, rather, conversational musical pieceswere confessional, hushed and, for the most part, did away with any sense of melody. Wise, who sings in a style veering between soul and neo-soul, created a hushed atmosphere that felt spiritual and solemn and the room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Unsurprisingly, the audience ate it up.
If Serpentwithfeet got the audience to listen, the headliner got them to sit up and stand at attention. Dressed in what looked like a white silk blouse, an unadorned utility belt and a large sheet of black rubber cut into pants, Genius stayed away from his piano and sang/danced with such fluid gestures that I had to remind myself that it was indeed him. Abandoning all the quiet and stillness from previous tours this time he seemed to be investigating jazz dance, elevating the music in the process. Instead of telegraphing the despair encoded in his music his songs revealed a richness and spontaneity that was liberating.
Opening with the new "Otherside," the set featured hearty helpings of No Shape ( "Alan," "Die 4 You," "Just Like Love" Go Ahead" ) with bits from his earlier recordings ( "Wreath," "Normal Song," "My Dark Parts," "Hood" ). It did not come as much of a surprise that "Slip Away" closed the set properlyor that the audience started dancing wildly. What really left an impression was how, with his new look and approach, Perfume Genius reveled in his queerness. As a young man who was bullied ( by students ), ignored ( by his school administration ) and bashed, and who lived in a home rife with domestic abuse, this felt like a show of coming-out and self-acceptance. With bandmate and partner Alan Wyffels at his side ( duetting on "Mr. Peterson" ), the impression I got was that Genius is headed onto a whole new path.