Mike Hadreas looks like a grown-up Billy Elliot, in that he doesn’t look very grown-up at all. His t-shirt is too big for his frame; the curly tendrils of his hair are swooped to the side in a trim pompadour; he sits behind a piano, primly and properly. When he sings, he looks wide-eyed and guileless, like a choirboy. But his face contorts into a grimace every few seconds, and he sings every third or fourth word out of the side of his mouth, as if he has to physically force it through. This all plays a part in the painfully heartbreaking experience that is a Perfume Genius live show.
Last night was the musical equivalent of watching an Alejandro Iñárritu film. Like the dialogue in 21 Grams or Babel, Hadreas’ fragile falsetto falls in between pockets of stilted silence, leaving no choice but to focus on the lyrics that are making your soul feel like it’s being dragged through the gutter, ever so quietly. I feel ridiculous for having ever cried listening to Dashboard Confessional in high school. “Your hair is everywhere” has got nothing on Hadreas' stories of drugs, abuse and suicide, written during a year of self-imposed isolation. Over bare-boned piano, he tells them at a glacial pace. “Look out, look out. There are murderers about,” goes the opening song, “Look Out, Look Out." He peers straight into the audience. He looks over to the only other person on stage, Alan Wyffels, providing minimal synth work. After that, he spends most of the night looking down. Occasionally he'll glance over at Wyffels, but it's never at the time that Wyffels is looking over at him — it's like they’re checking that neither are leaving the other behind (according to an article in the Times this summer, the two are dating.)
The room is more quiet than I’ve ever seen. You can hear every pop of a beercan opening, every snap of a camera. Any chitchat among the audience receives glares. I worry that I didn’t turn my off my phone. When a song stops, usually abruptly, Hadreas clears his throat, shifts in seat, and whispers “Thanks.” This continues through a large portion of material from Learning, the surprise Matador-backed, Best New Music-earned debut album from earlier this year. When there’s a break in the cycle, like when his mic stand keeps drooping, the crowd jumps at the chance to release the tension. “There should be a knob to tighten!” people yell out encouragingly. It feels good to help. “I’m retarded for not knowing that,” he laughs. Then turns to Wyffles and says, “Hit it.”
Soon comes album highlight “Mr. Peterson,” a cringe-worthy song that includes the lines, "My work came back from class/With notes attached/Of a place and time/Or how my body kept him up at night. He let me smoke weed in his truck/If I could convince him I loved him enough/Enough, enough, enough." The last part is barely audible, not even sung into the mic. A few beats later, there's this: "When I was 16, he jumped off a building." Eventually Hadreas mutters, “Thank you so much for coming to the show.” Again, laughter from the audience. Not because it’s funny, but because, holy crap do we need something to laugh about.
Photographs by Ashley Minette