The poetry of true experience – Perfume Genius at St. Philip’s Church, Salford on Monday 18th October 2010.
As Mike Hadreas/Perfume Genius took to the barely-lit altar in St. Philip’s Church in Salford, amidst perhaps fifty or so people, there was the sense that this was going to be a very special concert. The austere but spiritual setting provided the most sympathetic, soft landscape for his frail, but warm poetry.
There is something sweetly vulnerable about him, like a newborn foal stumbling around shakily, elegantly, as if seeing the morning sky for the first time; blinking, startled, but curious. The most wonderful thing about Perfume Genius is how, with his first record Learning, he also takes you on that journey, and somehow makes you feel like you are seeing the morning sky, (whatever that may signify) for the first time. His record is like the break after the heavy, twisting storm; that sliver of pink amidst the belly of the grey rainclouds, like the shimmering piano on the title track that soars, building on the early ornamental melodic flourishes that he lays out for you like little clues.
He tentatively moved from song to song, from guitar to piano, from ‘Gay Angels’ to ‘You Won’t B Here’ to ‘No Problem’, ably aided by Alan Wyffels, who accompanied on a second piano and with the rich, floating harmonies, with the crowd genuinely in awe of this tender, moving talent – the only audible whisper throughout the entire experience was when Hadreas himself shyly spoke between songs. Experience is the right word for what this was, sometimes the raw pain he was recalling felt so fresh that it seemed almost wrong to applaud, but the applause was for both his musicality and his survival. When he launched into the desperately sad ‘Mr Petersen’ (about his old school janitor) and the lines: ‘He made me a tape of Joy Division,/ he told me that there was part of him missing./ When I was sixteen, he jumped off a building./ Mr. Petersen, I know you were ready to go,/ I hope there’s room for you up above or down below‘ which prefaces the almost fairground-infused harpsichord, it almost felt like the collective crowd took an intake of breath, as if to arm against the impending doom and dark experience that song relays, but that is part of his attractiveness – with his vulnerability comes a huge amount of courage; and to be able to reveal that level of painful experience, while commanding an equally free creativity musically, as well as the most quivering, charming vocal makes him a very compelling performer.
His record manages to balance stark experiences; spare and unstinting, with the warmest of melodies and sounds, swirling around like a lost audio episode of Twin Peaks, and live he manages to translate this beautifully, which seems to take him by surprise, as by the time we have entreated him for a second encore he has put his coat on, and he quietly reveals that he had never had a second encore before, which just adds to the innocent joy of it all.
Live it often sounds as if he is rolling around certain words from one side of his mouth to the other, in a similar way to how Joanna Newsom sings, relishing the language and sentiment to the point where it is almost too much to contain, and Perfume Genius sometimes seems so overwhelmed that he is not sure if he can hold back, but he does, somehow – evidencing the great musician within, that amidst all the pain, and the black eyes and broken, contorted, damaged heart, he is also an artist.
His performance brought to mind other interesting male artists of recent years such as Antony, John Grant and Owen Pallett, (as well as Daniel Johnston, to some extent) who survey a landscape that contains interesting intellectual concepts and composition, performance conceits and emotional truth. Perfume Genius is rooted within that tradition which is the best tradition of all – the poetry of true experience, of life genuinely lived and examined, which takes the artist, and the audience into vulnerable, challenging, extraordinary territory, but as Hadreas has recently said, he is “getting more comfortable at being uncomfortable”; we need to do the same.
– Siobhán Kane
Learning is available on Matador Records. Rumours of an early 2011 Dublin date have already started…