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How Perfume Genius survived to shine more brightly than ever on 'No Shape'

Perfume Genius: He's still alive.

Perfume Genius: He's still alive. Photo by Inez & Vinoodh.

Matador Records first released Perfume Genius into the world with an MP3 called “Mr. Peterson.” It's a bleak, simple cassette recording of a voice and a piano. If you listen without giving it your full attention it sounds like an accident, like some anonymous stranger’s trash.

The beginning isn’t even music, just static in what sounds like an empty room. A voice asks, “This is it?” Another confirms, “This is it.” Then you hear a slightly out of tune piano. It wouldn't make sense if you didn’t trust Matador, but you do. You’ve been warned that you’re stepping into something.

“Mr. Peterson” is a joyless song about the horror that breaks you. In this spare, low-fi setting the horror has a fitting home. If someone told you this person we hear was withdrawing from drugs in a flophouse, that this “song” was him explaining, somehow, how things got so bad, you’d believe them. It's as harrowing as it gets.

Which may be why Matador picked this of all things as a means to an introduction. They made a bet. A very clever but risky bet. The kind of wager that’s been placed on a few musicians from the Pacific Northwest before. Essentially: Here is this broken person who can sing and dance and write a hook that’s worth a damn. Our bet is that this person survives. That not only can this person survive in public, they can flourish. It’s what you want if you’re a decent person.

Of course, “Mr. Peterson” could have been nothing more than a novelty. A pyrotechnic display of talent it isn’t. It’s not like hearing Beyoncé or Leonard Cohen for the first time, where you might think, “Now that person has a rare gift.” It was compelling, but so’s reading the crime blotter. So is gossip about infidelity. “Mr. Peterson” leaps to his death from a building in the song. It sounds true. It’s a brave thing to say out loud. But it’s not the kind of thing successful careers are made of.

As it turns out, this self-proclaimed “genius” does have a rare gift. It’s a gift for no-bullshit, direct storytelling. It’s the economy of packing big ideas in small, tender packages. On Learning, the Perfume Genius album that contains “Mr. Peterson,” the evidence is right there. The second track on the album, “Lookout, Lookout,” ends like this:

Guinea pig hair
And a twisted mouth
Through a hole to the railway
And Brian’s face down.
Keep your wits
He will not be missed
He didn’t have a family to begin with.
Lookout, Lookout.
Lookout, Lookout.
Lookout, Lookout.
There are murders about.

Each plea is more desperate, more world-weary, and more convincing than the last.

The piano that accompanies “Lookout” and its song structure isn’t far from the kind of indie rock torch-ballads that a band like Radiohead has had so much influence on. It’s simple. It’s true. It makes you wonder just what kind of murders this guy is talking about. It cuts deep but the blow is isolated. Like a Beyoncé or a Cohen, you realize that whatever it is this guy’s got, he’s the only one that’s got it.

No Shape, released earlier this month, is the fourth great album from Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) since 2010, and it’s proof that a person can and should overcome hell on earth. I’m not going to regale you with Hadreas’ story. It’s in the music and it’s been dissected before. I hope this article is proof you can talk about a person’s creative work without getting into their sex life.

So how does Perfume Genius get to the Cedar Cultural Center this Wednesday? How do we go from the aptly titled Learning to No Shape? Slowly. Patiently. The only way to do so without getting engulfed in your own flames.

There were comparisons between Hadreas and the early work of Daniel Johnston when Learning got its first buzz. That made sense. Here are these guys making records that sound like they were manufactured on VCRs. The songs are all about loneliness and the insanity and desperation that comes with it. They’re both kind of brilliant and they make you wonder what will come next.

But the comparison stops there. The sad thing about Johnston (and I hate making these kinds of assumptions in public) is that he was probably too far gone by the time critics noticed him. He needed help and he didn’t get it in time. There is a terrific irony about the pictures of Kurt Cobain wearing his homemade Johnston t-shirts. Daniel Johnston didn’t die though. He just never overcame his previous work. He never became “unbroken.” Maybe Hadreas was a little stronger. Maybe God interfered. Who knows really why one person makes it and another person doesn’t. All I can tell you is it feels good watching a person make it when it looked like they weren’t going to.

Perfume Genius’ second album Put Your Back N 2 It was cleaner, more polished, more hopeful than its predecessor. It’s still dark, still damaged, but it’s closer to something beautiful. “Take Me Home” expresses a desperate, pathetic kind of love that’s all too identifiable.

I'll be so quiet for you
Look like a child for you
Be like a shadow of a shadow
Of a shadow for you.

I work the corner of an endless grid
I'll be so still for you
Like a dead dog
Lay there 'til my eyes pop
All for you.

There’s a scene in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York where Philip Seymour Hoffman asks Catherine Keener, who plays his wife, “Have I disappointed you somehow?” Her response is, “Everyone is disappointing, the more you know someone.” It’s devastating and it’s meant to devastate. Everyone in the audience has to look at themselves and think, “Oh shit. I really hope that’s not true.” But it is true. That’s why it lands. There’s a reason a lot of people hated that movie and there’s a reason Perfume Genius doesn’t get played much at parties.

“Take Me Home” is the same as what Keener says. It hurts because it’s true. It’s hard to say the thing out loud. Many of us have been there, where suddenly you’re ready to sacrifice your whole life and all of your humanity for love. “I’ll be a shadow of a shadow of a shadow for you,” might just be the most pathetic thing I’ve ever heard, on a record or in real life. We’re supposed to be better than this. But sometimes we’re not.

Put Your Back N 2 It is something of a cousin to Bill Callahan’s Smog record Knock, Knock. It’s an artist who’s always surrounded himself in curtains of hiss and static and a lifetime of bizarre expectations stepping into the light. When Callahan sings, “The type of memories that turn your bones to glass” he’s synthesizing a thing he’s said before. He’s just saying it in a cogent way for the first time. When I was 17 and naïve I wondered just what kind of memory could “turn my bones to glass.” I know now. I like this song. It helps me.

Like Callahan, Perfume Genius made a leap, but his came much earlier. Too Bright, Hadreas’ third album, is like Callahan’s breakout Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. The title alone is a wink to the woke: Too Bright! So fucking bright! This guy has been marinating in darkness his whole career.

The first single off that album is called “Queen” and it devastates with purpose. The line from that song that’s quoted most often is, “No family is safe when I sashay.” It’s maybe the least queer, most direct thing an otherwise flamboyant man could say. It’s Hadreas coming at the patriarchy with a hammer. You cannot play that song loud enough. It’s impossible. It reduces everything around it to rubble. Sometimes I imagine how that song would’ve played with the 90’s Buzz Bin crowd, when the Flaming Lips or Nada Surf or Butthole Surfers just owned their unlikely moment of fame. Put “Queen” on MTV in 1995 and every cool teenager in America loses their shit.

Which brings us to No Shape, the best and the brightest. It took years to get here but then it also took no time at all. When Perfume Genius takes the stage at the Cedar tonight, I’ll be there. I’ve missed him too many times. It’s too important to miss again. In 2017, it’s no joke to say we need a hero because we do. We need a hero really badly. Some of us are desperate. Some of us need a hero so bad it’s pathetic. This guy will take the stage and the world will continue to spin and there will be even more pain and more catharsis.

Perfume Genius provides a precedent. Someone can be down. All the odds can be stacked against them. It might look like there’s no way to get out of this. It might seem like too much to overcome and you might want to give up.

But that’s not always the case. Have a little faith. All it takes is a little. Think to yourself, “There has got to be a reason for this.” Look in the mirror. Fight like it’s the only thing in your life that matters. Listen to Perfume Genius.

Perfume Genius
With: serpentwithfeet
Where: Cedar Cultural Center
When: 7 p.m. Wed. May 24
Tickets: $17/$19; more info here