Perfume Genius review – sweet smell of success

Heaven, London
He may be a delicate soul, but Mike Hadreas’s confessional pop is sensual, anthemic and fearless

Perfume Genius – the alter ego of 35-year-old Mike Hadreas – is floating around the stage dressed like an haute couture mannequin who’s run off before the dress could be finished. He’s rocking a gaping bouffant-sleeved blouse and a pinstripe culotte ball gown that threatens to fall off because Hadreas’s skinny chest doesn’t provide much scaffolding. Periodically, he’ll undulate in slow motion, leaning backwards with a grace that defies gravity. It looks like he does a lot of yoga and knows all too well the connections between backbends and courage.

Like the tracklisting of his new, fourth album, No Shape, tonight’s setlist kicks off properly with a shock of a song called Otherside, a delicate passage that begins – like so many of his songs – with keys and vocals.

“Even in hiding, find it knows you,” Hadreas croons, “rocking you to sleep, from the other side.” Then, boom! The band – keyboard player, collaborator and Perfume life partner Alan Wyffels, drummer Hervé Picard and bassist Tom Bromley – unleash a hundredweight of deafening sound from a great height, a coup de theatre not unlike a bass drop in EDM, or post-rockers Mogwai hitting the distortion pedals. If you’ve heard the album, you know it’s coming, but it still sends your dopamine receptors into spasm.

Released last month, No Shape, a beautiful, inventive album, is one of the best so far this year. It is strange, though, to find this dramatic Seattle native and his band playing it in the humid crypt that is London’s Heaven, rather than levelling up somewhere plusher and more lofty.

The subterranean venue isn’t wrong, exactly – it hosts the fabled G-A-Y club night, and Hadreas’s music swirls intensely around his sexuality – but it just seems too walled-in to contain the scope of Perfume Genius’s sky-bound output. Plus, the air-con rattles like an old-school film projector, breaking up the more gaseous passages of music that have promoted Hadreas out of the harrowing indie-confessional subgenre and into a more expansive sphere.

Watch the video for Slip Away.

Other songs unleashed tonight beg to be bellowed in vast festival fields – anthemic slabs of orchestral rock such as Slip Away, which recalls far bigger bands like Arcade Fire doing Sufjan Stevens. Hadreas has said that he wanted something of a Bruce Springsteen vibe on this latest album – an unapologetic, widescreen staking-out of sonic space.

Then there’s all the strutting art-rock, introduced on the 2014 album Too Bright, and pursued again tonight. Hadreas has often spoken of his admiration for PJ Harvey, and you can really feel the presence of 90s Harvey in the throbbing tracks strafed with keyboards and guttural cries – My Body, say, with its low-slung hellish sizzle. Considering Perfume Genius’s first two albums catalogue a lifestyle of excess, abuse and its repercussion with tremulous intimacy, Hadreas now finds himself the missing link between Rufus Wainwright and Arca. He is a fearless and literate storyteller at home on a piano stool (like Wainwright), and a sensual artist striving to transcend the body, to be fluid and unanchored, either by fleshy mechanics or verse-chorus-verse (Arca). Bodies are everywhere in Perfume Genius, the site of pleasure, shame and pain. Hadreas has Crohn’s disease; the condition marked his childhood. Tonight, there’s an aggressive cover of Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Body’s in Trouble, tying in all the ways in which the vessel frustrates, a theme continued on the magnificent Wreath, a cut from No Shape. Here, Hadreas shrugs off all physical shackles to a chorus of yodelling “yeah yeah yeahs”. “I wanna hover with no trace,” it goes.

More people really need to hear this record and get Hadreas higher up festival bills. The man’s delicate demeanour makes you pause, though. When he is in full-frontal mode, Hadreas postures like a rock star, having what looks like a blast. As the show moves towards its crescendo of Queen, Hadreas is increasingly transported and rips out his earpieces.

Between songs, though, Hadreas is far more nervous than his latter-day art suggests. “I’m trying to cook up some good banter,” he confesses, as the silences between songs broaden. “It’s not cooked yet.” Given the man’s entertaining Twitter feed, it’s strange to find Hadreas so lost for words. Towards the end, he has visibly relaxed. Two quiet songs are directed at Wyffels – the self-explanatory Alan, about the miracle of domesticity, and Learning, the first song on his first album, in which tormentors taunt the young Hadreas; Wyffels is now there at the keyboard with him, the answer to his prayers in the song.

But mostly, Perfume Genius starts every song with a deep intake of breath and the word “OK”. It’s an instruction to the band, but also, seemingly, a gathering of his own nerve.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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