photo by Angel Ceballos, 2012
by Lee P. Doptera
In college, we would lie on my bunk and stare at the play of light across the wall opposite my window. We liked watching the flickering brightness that filtered through the leaves. We called it the "wodahs" (terribly clever, I know) and would spend lazy hours talking in voices muffled and broken apart by distraction. Sentences would begin and stumble to a stop before completion. We never looked at one another. Instead, we focused on the dancing brightness that jumped across the institution cream of the walls and let the silent interludes fill us with the courage to say things that are difficult to express when looking someone in the eye. Some of my best conversations were had while watching a shifting circle of light move across peeling paint. This dreamy waxing and waning brightness is embodied entirely in solo artist Mike Hadreas A.K.A. Perfume Genius. The songs flit with the translucent delicacy of a dragonfly wing and the rests are filled with the scent of bergamot. Each track makes me want to utter secrets to strangers.
I can do nothing when these songs are playing. Whatever I focus on seems to crystallize. Frost creeping across a window pane, sugar crystals forming on a string; everything has a solid intricacy. There is such a lightness and fragility to his voice that I can feel it fall on my tongue and melt away like a snowflake. It leaves behind the earthy floral taste of Jasmine tea; the fragile transparency of a wilting petal. It feels powdery-soft; granulated at most.
Decades of harp playing have left my fingerprints nearly non-existent and my sense of touch dulled. This is quite handy when removing pans from an oven, but leaves me unable to feel minute differences in texture. What my fingers have forgotten, my mind has retained. When listening to Perfume Genius, I can feel the lost sensation of dipping my finger into a mound of powdered sugar or the satin of finely sanded wood. I also feel the near-painful sharpness of a deep cold breath after a winter run.
I smile the unconscious half-smile of a girl in love. I am at my first dance, both elated and petrified; feeling slow and clumsy while I strive for grace. He makes me aspire. "Aspire" is the word that continues to surface when I try to summarize him. I want to be made up of the elegant arching lines the music draws. I want to walk with the airy lightness of his sweet trembling voice. Do you see what I mean? Can you listen without gripping the desk, petrified of being lifted by the gentle block chords of the piano? Do you feel the rabbit-fur softness of the sporadic cymbal against your cheek? Do violins threaten to sweep your feet out from under you? Could you try?
Rarely do I mention my condition to others. It is difficult to explain that for me a sound can have a scent, taste, texture, color, and shape. The most common reaction is disbelief expressed by the presentation of half of their profile decorated with a slit eye and pursed lips. The second most common reaction is a request for demonstration. "What does my voice taste like?" "What color is such and such song?" These requests are understandable. Curiosity is natural when presented with an oddity, but I always have to respond with an apologetic "It doesn't work that way" after which they leave disappointed or join ranks with the non-believers.
Due to my nearly non-existent hearing as a child, my senses have come to a strange agreement that involved doling out additional duties to cover for my lack of auditory facility. After surgery, my senses went along with their normal business for the most part and I would only get occasional cross-over. Now it is more of a focused listening that allows me to once again experience music in this all-consuming manner. When I do explain it (and it is so rare that I try), I liken it to straining to hear a conversation across a room. It requires focus to tune in on a particular sense or senses. Sometimes I just cannot. Other times it comes unbidden and I cannot turn it off. Generally once I start, effort is not required to maintain it. The struggle then becomes attempting to pull back into the world of hearing with ears and seeing with eyes so that I can carry on a simple conversation without feeling like I have a head full of acid. Consequently, I have never tried acid but I imagine if you have, everything I have said may actually make sense to you.
Should you want to try yourself, I recommend Perfume Genius's "Dirge." Just be sure you are in a good state of mind for it. The song has the tragic beauty of an oil slick on water. See if you feel the snowflakes; the clean cold brushes against your cheek. Close your eyes and really listen. Fifty seconds in, the echoing sustained climb of the piano notes trace ripples in mist; Indian ink blooms in water. A soft cello enters with the taste of cardamom. Feathers. The occasional surprising taste of a sea-salt tinged breeze. I hear the song and experience living haikus.
I created an ever-evolving and growing playlist called "Dermal Pop Rocks" for songs that produce pins and needles across my skin. The list is full of Perfume Genius, My Brightest Diamond, Tom Waits, and others capable of drawing a finger quickly across the nape of your neck with their voice. I could just as easily call it "Medusa" because these artists freeze me. My eyes drift and become unfocused on the here and now. I see winterscapes and abstractions. I feel words on different parts of my skin pressing, scratching, releasing, gripping. I am simultaneously held motionless and carried away.
Still, there is another side to Mr. Hadreas that I cannot define as "emerging" because it is a strength that has always been there, for delicacy takes strength and a steady hand to craft. "Queen" is a blow to the chest. The pure beauty of his voice is still there but rather than a column of crystal, it stands with the strength of a steel pillar still hot from the furnace in which it was forged. While many of his former songs make me want to confess who I am to others in a shy whisper, "Queen" makes me want to declare it with a smirk. Never before has the word "disease" been so beautifully and challengingly sung. It is a song that makes you want to rise to your feet and stare someone down.
Oh, it's all still there. His new album is the turning of a leaf from green to deep red; changed but not. You will hear the sweet rise and fall of a chorus and impeccable timing you have come to expect from Perfume Genius, but this beauty enhances the strength of his lyrics. The drums are the paw-pad of a lion. The guttural syncopation is a whip-crack; clean, precise, and stinging. The explosion of texture following the word "Mary" (2:28 in) elevates the entire song. You will not find bergamot and cardamom here. The flavor is pomegranate and dark chocolate. The scent is espresso, whiskey, and earth. The combination is intoxicating and visceral.
The curse of art is that we fall so deeply in love with it that we can be reluctant to follow the natural evolution of an artist. This is especially true for music. A painting remains a painting. We do not travel to see an artist continually paint old favorites and new ones on a stage in ever-changing renditions. Although, I would certainly pay to see that. We do buy tickets to watch musicians perform their old and new songs usually without expecting them to sound like recorded tracks. Well, some artists tend to rely heavily on the pre-recorded vocals.. So why is it that we are so quick to abandon a musician when they produce something different? Music is an expression of the person creating it and that person is always growing, forming opinions, changing their mind. Music is living and breathing and cannot be expected to survive in some Dorian Gray existence of stagnation.
Perfume Genius returns me to the ocean; the first time that I swam out to tread water and rise and fall with the waves. I felt the occasional bit of seaweed or a fish brush my legs. Nothing frightening, just a pleasantly unidentifiable reminder of passing life. I swam at night only to be scolded and warned that this is when sharks come to the shallows to feed. I still do not know if this is true or not, but I returned the following night to float on my back in the surreally empty ocean. The swells lifted me closer to and further from the moon periodically. That is what the music of Perfume Genius is to me. A beautiful and sincere voice, uncluttered and perfectly entwined musical accompaniment, the pull of the moon to the water. I can drift and stretch eager fingers towards the unknown below those changing waters. I can stare at a moon that seems within reach. I can float alone. Just me and the sharks.
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