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Perfume Genius

at The Art School

* * * * *

Mike Hadreas further shows he’s a popstar for the ages.

Image of Perfume Genius
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and guest Perfume Genius during Friday's May 5, 2017 show. Photo: Scott Kowalchyk/CBS ©2017CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Tonight’s gig is no first-time showcase; Mike Handreas (AKA Seattle’s Perfume Genius) and his group seem to be playing the same set they’ve been doing throughout 2017. But what’s evident on-stage is Handreas’ album-by-album transformation. From the bedsit pianist fare of Put Your Back N 2 It and Learning to the vivacious popstardom of Too Bright and this year’s peacocking No Shape, the change has been gradual over the previous decade or so. Yet each of his four albums add up to a cohesively expanding statement, like a film turning slowly from black-and-white to wide-eyed Technicolor.

Perfume Genius’ show oscillates between the two – the past and the present – and takes the latter as its starting point. Here comes Hadreas in a velour bronze suit, looking much like a tropical bird drawn to the fruit of his deep rainforest stage backdrop. But we don’t yet get the coquettish rockstar we’ve come to know. Otherside begins with a tentative piano phrase from keyboardist (and Hadreas’ boyfriend) Alan Wyffels, with coy Hadreas’ vocal quivering atop it. If you’ve heard the album, you know what’s coming next; the song hits a magisterial chord like sunshine being let into a dank room, and Hadreas finally convulses like a serpentine Janet Jackson. Die 4 U, much later on, finds Hadreas vocally teaming up with Wyffels in breathy, orgasmic cries of “oh my love”. The air of the entire show is maddeningly sexy, and Hadreas is the night’s gorgeous showman.

It’s clear we’re in for a night of libidinal energy by Hadreas’ sustained writhing through the locked groove of Longpig to the underrated pop cut Just Like Love. Yet between songs, Hadreas seems sweetly humbled by his adoring fans, and rarely lifts his eyes from the floor. So, whenever Hadreas locks eyes with an unsuspecting audience member or pulls away form the mic like he’s stealing kisses – shoulders luxuriously revealed – a slight change in his behaviour is undoubtedly magnetic. He may not have the same omnivorous appetite, but tonight Hadreas certainly brings Bowie to mind. The theatrical stage persona, the charisma, the commanding bandleader presence – it’s all Thin White Duke, but Perfume Genius aptly makes it part of his own wilderness.

It’s surprising to find Hadreas just as commanding when he winds things down for his older material, yet his clarity and verbal elegance were always present even in those bedsit days. Doors creak and awed fans whisper between Normal Song’s gaping silences. Electrical glitches only seem to enhance the sounds of youthful condolences. This is a different kind of intimacy to the one we saw earlier – one of heartbreaking secrets and tearful confessions, and Hadreas tells it like it’s the first time.

By the time we get to the holy trinity of Perfume Genius’ short but storied career – Slip Away, Hood and Queen – I’m convinced of something everyone else seems to have known all along. Mike Hadreas is a Springsteen, a Bowie, and a Madonna. In other words, he’s one of our great pop stars; defiantly sharing his darkest moments, whilst letting us celebrate his brightest. If he can do this much with a decade, who knows what another decade could bring.