It is not Michael Hadreas’ fault that his project Perfume Genius often draws comparisons to Elliott Smith and Sufjan Stevens from the Internet’s if-you-like-this-then-you’ll-like-that ballparking and cross-selling algorithms. It’s a poor comparison for all involved, based only on a few cosmetic, Pandorable traits: the frail hush of their singing and a kind of one-person-as-universe bedroom insularity that all have indulged and forsaken at various points in their careers.
Now, Elliott Smith gave us one of the most fresh and sophisticated updates of Beatle-derived harmony that we will ever receive. Learn a few of his tunes and you will never stop wondering how he heard it that way. Sufjan Stevens fused folk music with ultra-assured techniques of 20th-century Minimalist composition and arrangement (more effectively on Michigan, though Illinois has better songs). It sounds simple. It is really not.
From the first note of “Learning,” the title track and first cut of Perfume Genius’ debut, Hadreas builds his simple-but-moving melodies off that rudimentary I/V/vi/IV progression: the same magic pattern that Anthony Kiedes invokes when he wants to sound sensitive and that got mocked into super-memedom by Axis of Awesome. Perfume Genius has never gone much past that matrix and its variations. It’s his blues, his four chords and the truth.
It is not Michael Hadreas’ fault that is he oft compared to Smith and Stevens, but it certainly got him and me off on the wrong foot. Though it is often called “Baroque” and likened to the most super-fine chamber pop, the real action with Perfume Genius is not in how fine or musically imaginative it is, but in how radically, quietly raw.
The lo-fi piano ballads featured on Learning grabbed the first wave of the Seattle-based project’s fans with their ultra-compact, imagistic, poignant and ironic vignettes of people in crisis, dysfunctional families and lost souls on the margins. Its undercurrent of hopeful and affirmative messaging, buoyed on a light suggestion of gospel, really bloomed on his sophomore effort, Put Your Back N 2 to It, on which Hadreas mostly trades in the concrete narratives for soaring, sermonized waves of empathy and defiance.
Perfume Genius’ latest, Too Bright (Matador, 2014), has turned out to be a polarizing effort amongst his core fans. All darkness and nerve without the accents of gospelized uplift, Too Bright teases and taunts with dirty, menacing synth elements, primal drumming on a few tracks and the artful building of tension through delayed resolution. It doesn’t soar like his past efforts, or not as much; it’s all Minimalist grind and glam reductions. Meanwhile, its poetry (for that is what it is) aligns itself with the brutal candor of P. J. Harvey and with that great landmark of the unapologetic, confessional yowl, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. It’s a gripping listen that doesn’t remake the Perfume Genius brand so much as it flip its poles, fully embracing its darker and combative side.
Perfume Genius lands at BSP in Kingston on Wednesday, March 25 at 8 p.m. Better get your tickets now, as this guy appears to be blowing up. Norwegian songwriter Jenny Hval opens. Tickets cost $15 in advance, $18 at the door. They are available locally at Rocket Number Nine and Outdated in Kingston, Jack’s Rhythms in New Paltz, Darkside Records in Poughkeepsie and the Woodstock Music Shop. BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston. For more information, visit www.bspkingston.com.
Perfume Genius/Jenny Hval, Wednesday, March 25, $8 p.m., $15 advance/$18 door, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; www.bspkingston.com.