Live: The Profoundly Discomforting Perfume Genius At 92Y Tribeca
The solid 15 seconds of painful, awkward silence between when Mike Hadreas (a/k/a Perfume Genius) sits down and when he actually starts playing piano is your first warning that this is gonna be a nerve-rattling experience, Cat Power to the nth degree. His frail falsetto -- like Sufjan drained of all grandiosity, or Shudder to Think's Craig Wedren drained of the sleaze and frivolity -- shakes you further. And then, finally and most brutally, the lyrics. That he rhymes "brother" with "recovers" is the least of your problems.
Perfume Genius' unexpectedly Best New Music'd debut CD, Learning, is deeply unsettling to say the least, shattered and shattering. To avoid uncouth speculation, most find it easiest to simply quote Hadreas from his Matador Records bio: "I spent my whole life hiding from the things that happened to me, to my family and friends ... The entirety of all these experiences: abuse, addiction, suicide, all that cool stuff, I couldn't bear to look at it." It's our turn now, to find the looking unbearable. Consider "Mr. Peterson," a sweet, almost jaunty-sounding ode to an old teacher: "He let me smoke weed in his truck/If I could convince him I loved him enough/Enough enough enough enough enough." One Joy Division reference later, the climax: "When I was 16/He jumped off a building." Hadreas winces when he sings that line, and I wince too; after the song concludes to much applause, someone back by the bar wolf-whistles, and I wince again.
Our star attraction is joined tonight by a dude on synthesizer who occasionally wanders over to the piano for some shared-bench duet action, a further intimacy and a way less discomfiting one, though the contrast between the frilly, cheery arpeggios of Learning's title track clash viciously with the refrain: "No one will answer your prayers until you take off that dress/No one will hear all your crying until you take your last breath/But you will learn to mind me/And you will learn to survive me." It's hard to escape the feeling that we're all not supposed to be here. Hadreas says like five words to us in 45 minutes, one of which is "sorry." After a tune that begins, unconvincingly, "It's all a part of His plan," he attempts to saunter offstage but can't find an actual door anywhere in the red curtain and ends up standing there for a few painful seconds like George W. Bush. He finally manages to leave, but quickly returns for one more song, which ends with "If you were here right now/I wouldn't have to write it down." This was all quite beautiful, but I don't think I could handle it again.