Better than: Your ex.
Mike Hadreas shifted his weight on the piano bench. “This one’s a cover,” the singer–who records under the moniker Perfume Genius–noted softly, slowly tapping the keys of the grand piano found under red lights on stage at (le) Poisson Rouge. The melody was familiar, one that concertgoers knew they recognized, but weren’t immediately quite sure where to place it. “There is a town in North Ontario, with a dream comfort memory to spare,” he whispered slowly through his trembling falsetto. At that moment, it was as if a collective lightbulb lit up above the crowd, and the sold-out downtown venue exploded with cheers. Of course, this was Neil Young’s “Helpless” from Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young’s debut 1970 record, Deja Vu–and, of course, one of the few men on the planet with an arguably weirder upper range than Neil Young was singing it. Date nights everywhere celebrated and held hands.
– Live: The Profoundly Discomforting Perfume Genius At 92Y Tribeca
The cover was beautiful, gorgeous, whatever-other-adjective-about-pretty-things-you-want-to-use, but unsurprisingly, Hadreas didn’t make a big deal about it. He finished quietly and quickly, said thank you as he nodded appreciatively, and walked off stage, hardly even staying for the applause. In a minute, he’d be back for an encore of three songs, but those renditions would be brief, too. In fact, the whole show lasted barely an hour, even though Hadreas managed to play nearly his entire record from earlier this year, Put Your Back N 2 It, a couple bonus tracks, and even cuts from his first record, Learning.
That’s because, in his songwriting, Hadreas doesn’t really fuck around. He gets to the point, embracing brevity and using it as a tool to illustrate just how poignant a moment in this life, if done right, can be. Take “Hood,” the lead single from Put Your Back N 2 It, a track that clocks in right around the two minute mark. It’s one of those songs that tackles the age old concept of love, the inevitabilities of relationships, and how those feelings are often hidden due to insecurity. Look at the lyrics: “You would never call me baby, if you knew me truly,” he delicately croons in the song’s opening moment. But rather than wallowing around in the potentially overt earnestness of this subject, miking it for all its worth, treading dangerously close to the word “corny,” he gets in and out, playing the last chord just as the listener begins to process the track’s themes. This style lets Hadreas get away with Feelings that perhaps other musicians might be afraid to try–or, do try, and end up with a bunch of teenage angst.
On stage, Hadreas carries himself stoically. Sporting the Average Joe outfit of a white t-shirt and blue jeans last night, he bantered with the crowd a little bit, but typically kept to himself. That reserved approach, which can sometimes come across as pretension with artists who write emotional songs with pianos, actually works in his favor, because it matches the restrained nature of the music. At the same time, though, he’s not a brick wall. Early in the set, Hadreas ran into a bit of technical trouble with his microphone: It kept swinging away from him anytime he’d put his mouth on it. But he joked around a bit, relieving any potential tension or issues as it was fixed. It proved that even though he sings songs that make you think about serious issues or long lost lovers, ultimately, he’s just another person and isn’t acting like he’s anything precious or special.
That mindset transcends the music, too. Many of the songs from Perfume Genius are sad, yes, but there’s often an underlining feeling of optimism. Hadreas must be aware of that, because when he performs, there’s a certain hopefulness that radiates from the piano bench. While building into “No Tear” last night, as glowing blue lights engulfed him and his pulsing piano chords, it was as if he forgot about the audience and sang directly to an ex-lover. The song is clearly about getting dumped (“Roof comes down, and you leave me with nothing”), but rather than focus on the heartbreak and sadness that comes so strongly in those moments, Hadreas’s songwriting flips the coin and looks onward and upward. “I will carry on, I will carry on, with grace,” he sang plainly and forwardly, just before ending the song keenly, as if we were watching him underline the lyric in his notebook: “Zero tears on my face.”
Critical Bias: I’ve found myself on the wrong end of the “It’s not you, it’s me” conversation one too many times.
Random Notebook Dump: FEELINGS.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 10, 2012