This is one of those difficult weeks, one of those weeks when choosing one favorite album becomes a near-impossible task. It’s the week when Aphex Twin came back after a decade-plus absence with SYRO, a warm and welcoming but also complex and overwhelming piece of work. And even though I already wrote about SYRO, and we don’t do Album Of The Week pieces on albums when they’ve already been Premature Evaluation, that one feels huge enough that it could’ve been an exception. This is also the week that SBTRKT cashed in all his collaborator chips with the strange, beguiling Wonder When We Land and that Leonard Cohen went all Waitsian blues-mutter on Popular Problems. Julian Casablancas + The Voidz and Alt-J both put out big, fascinating, conversation-starting albums today, and even if I don’t really like those albums, it’s fun to have them around to pick apart. Bonnie “Prince” Billy and King Tuff and Mr Twin Sister and NehruvianDOOM and Tweedy all put out records that I really do like, to varying degrees. It kills me that I’m not giving Album Of The Week to GOAT’s percussive, reverb-heavy psych-funk workout Commune; I love that goofy thing to pieces. There was heavy, heavy competition this week, and yet there was only one real choice. When an already-powerful artist makes a big leap into the unknown, switches up sounds, and takes chances that pay off, that album deserves to be recognized. And it’s been a long time since anyone has made that leap with the sort of grace and force and style that Perfume Genius brings to Too Bright, his third album.
Mike Hadreas first built a name for himself four years ago with “Mr. Peterson,” a bare and stark piano ballad about being 16 and having a fling with a teacher who would shortly go on to commit suicide: “He let me smoke weed in his truck / If I could convince him I loved him enough.” We usually call this type of music “confessional,” though that’s not the right word here, since the term implies that the person telling the story did something wrong. But this was personal, vulnerable, ripped-open music, music that laid a private and complicated situation out, never making judgements, leaving us to figure things out ourselves. And for his first two albums, Hadreas worked in a mode much like that: Soft, complex, unadorned, intimate. So “Queen,” the first single from Too Bright, signals an abrupt turnaround of sorts. Suddenly, the same voice that was sharing those bare, specific stories is snarling and strutting over exploding drums and distorto-glam pianos: “Don’t you know your queen? / Ripped, heaving / Flowers bloom at my feet.” It’s a song that purposefully mashes every gay-panic button, a song so confident and direct that its very existence feels confrontational. If you’re making a late-summer playlist of I’m-the-shit songs, something I did last night, I’d advise that “Queen” pairs beautifully with Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj’s “Flawless” remix. When Hadreas howls, “No family’s safe when I sashay,” it might not mean quite the same thing as “I look so good tonight,” but it’s coming from a similar place.
Musically, much of Too Bright follows that glorious first single’s lead. “Grid” and “My Body” marry rockabilly thrust to squalid, sinister electronics, like Suicide if they’d had access to the Knife’s serrated synths. “Longpig” layers on the sci-fi keyboard sounds, turning them tense and urgent. “I’m A Mother” feeds Hadreas’ voice through enough filters that it sounds deep and gurgly and inhuman. “Fool” is a beautiful synthetic soul song. There are still some quiet and soft piano songs here — they make up maybe a third of the short album — but Hadreas has blown out his musical scope to an absurd degree, working with Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley as well as regular producer and boyfriend Alan Wyffels. A few songs feature drummer John Parish, who regularly works with PJ Harvey, a hero to Hadreas. And the sonic, thematic, attitudinal leap Hadreas has taken between his second and third albums reminds me of the one that Harvey took between Rid Of Me and To Bring You My Love. Like Harvey, Hadreas has moved away from stark emotional honesty — though that’s still there — and toward a deeper, more mythic strain of music, one that taps into a sort of collective shared memory.
Case in point: “Don’t Let Them In,” one of those unadorned piano songs, on which Hadreas sings this: “In an alternate ribbon of time / My dances were sacred / And my lisp was evidence / That I spoke for both spirits / Don’t let them in / They’re well intended / But each comment rattles some deep ancient queen.” Hadreas is a gay man singing about longing, about feeling set aside and locked out even among the “well intended” who are trying to show off their tolerance. But where he once would’ve sung of those feelings in an almost direct, conversational way, he’s now evoking imagined ancient societies and the idea that his sexuality should be seen as something sacrosanct. Hadreas does something similar in the way that he sings about his body. Suffering from Crohn’s disease, he spent his childhood in and out of hospitals. And on Too Bright he sings, over and over again, of wanting to escape, wishing to transcend the physical plane. “I wear my body like a rotted peach,” he sings on “My Body.” “You can have it if you can handle the stink.”
In interviews, Hadreas has been talking about the idea that, despite the musical changes he’s made on Too Bright, his viewpoint isn’t really different from what it was on his first two albums. “Everything came from the same place, He told Stereogum. “It’s just sort of processed differently or something.” It’s true enough: He’s still the same person singing about the same feelings, and his crisp, controlled tenor adds an airy beauty to even the album’s darkest moment. But the choices he makes on Too Bright are so bold and varied and effective that he practically sounds like a new person. I’ve seen a few pieces that refer to Too Bright as Hadreas’ “pop” move, and that’s not right at all. It’s just an album that’s found some new ways to dig itself deeper into your veins.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Aphex Twin’s grand, gratifying return SYRO.
• Alt-J’s populist prog-pop sophomore effort This Is All Yours.
• Julian Casablancas + The Voidz’ messy, experimental Tyranny.
• Leonard Cohen’s grizzled, synth-drizzled Popular Problems.
• Tweedy’s assured, low-key debut Sukierae.
• GOAT’s anarchic, percussive, beautiful Commune.
• LVL UP’s jangly, canny Hoodwink’d.
• Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s countrified, largely unpublicized Singer’s Grave A Sea Of Tongues.
• SBTRKT’s twitchy, guest-heavy Wonder Where We Land.
• Mr Twin Sister’s smooth, adventurous, assured self-titled album.
• King Tuff’s raucous, snotty Black Moon Spell.
• The Drums’ twitchy comeback Encyclopedia.
• DOOM & Bishop Nehru’s self-titled debut as NehruvianDOOM.
• Whirr’s blasted-out shoegazer Sway.
• Stereolab member Laetitia Sadier’s solo album Something Shrines.
• Sondre Lerche’s divorce album Please.
• Former Carissa’s Weird member S’s direct, personal Cool Choices.
• Purling Hiss’ psychedelic garage rocker Weirdon.
• Bass producer Groundislava’s debut Frozen Throne.
• Terror Pigeon’s joyous, anarchic, posi indie-popper Live It Up Before You Die It Up!
• Nicholas Krgovich’s glimmering soft-rocker On Sunset.
• Dntel’s processed-voices glitch party Human Voice.
• Poppy Red’s warm synth-folk debut Hand Into The Fire.
• Lower Plenty’s warm, ramshackle folk-rocker Life/Thrills.
• Spray Paint’s scuzzy, sardonic Clean Blood, Regular Acid.
• Alex Napping’s shambling indie rock debut This Is Not A Bedroom.
• Foxes In Fiction’s death-haunted, string-heavy dream-popper Ontario Gothic.
• George Harrison’s The Apple Years 1968-75 box set.
• TOKiMONSTA’s Desiderium EP.
• Arp’s Pulsars E Quasars EP.
• Terry Malts’ Insides EP.
• Night Terrors Of 1927’s Anything To Anyone EP.
• CFCF’s Driftless Ambient 1 EP.