Concert review: Perfume Genius at the Wexner Center
Prior to launching into a tense, fidgety "Thing," Seattle singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas, who records and performs as Perfume Genius, hesitated, albeit briefly.
"Hold on," he cautioned his trio of backing musicians. "Well, no, go ahead."
Much of Hadreas' Monday performance at the Wexner Center for the Arts' Black Box on Mershon Stage remained similarly unsettled. Songs veered between tender, fragile moments, the musician curling his lithe frame childlike behind the keyboard, and defiant, world-cracking outbursts where the singer filled the intimate space with wordless cries that beamed like a heavenly chorus.
Hadreas, dressed in fishnet tights and a flowing, Betty Boop-adorned nightshirt, appeared here in support of his 2014 full-length, Too Bright, a more sonically adventurous album that finally found the musician stepping from behind the piano and moving beyond the shattered ballads that defined his earliest work. Fittingly, he kicked off the hour-long set standing at the microphone rather than perched at the keyboard, contorting his way through a shadowy, mutating "My Body."
"I wear my body like a rotted peach," he huffed, his voice trailed by an electronic buzz that sounded ready to shear meat from bone.
In a recent interview Hadreas admitted he's still gaining a comfort level with this new, loose onstage guise - "To be honest, it's more nerve-racking to perform and dance and scream than it ever was to get up onstage and emote," he said - and there were times his discomfort was palpable. On those numbers he remained untethered from the keyboard, he tended to move with charming awkwardness, swaying, bobbing and gyrating in a manner that, at times, called to mind those novelty dancing soda cans.
In contrast, the music itself tended to move with absolute certainty and grace, swinging from towering, noise-smeared walls of sound (a devastated take on Mary Margaret O'Hara's "Body's In Trouble") to comparatively intimate moments that mirrored bedroom confessions. "You will learn to survive me," Hadreas warbled on "Learning," his fingers gently dancing across the keys, as if to prevent the instrument from bruising.
Many of Hadreas' songs sounded similarly delicate, born of self-loathing, loneliness, and an intense desire to experience some deeper human connection. "Oh, let me rest in his arms again/ So safe was that feeling," he sighed on "Rusty Chains," a dreamy tune that sounded unbound in defiance of its shackled title.
Elsewhere, the musician swaggered through a dark, clattering "I Decline," and rattled cages on "Queen," a fierce, anthemic tune that doubled as a barely-veiled attack on homophobic attitudes. "No family's safe when I sashay," he sang, a disarming, brilliantly tongue-in-cheek utterance that highlighted the irrational fears fueling some anti-gay rhetoric.
Furthermore, the song pointed to a growing defiant streak within the musician. This was no longer about trying to find acceptance. Here Hadreas finally staked out his own turf, fearlessly asserting his will rather than bending to conform.