Indie outliers Perfume Genius and Moses Sumney explore queer desire on breakthrough albums
OK, everybody else can go home now (as if they weren’t there already): Moses Sumney and Mike Hadreas have made the albums of our strange quarantine season — bleak but tender, sprawling yet intricately detailed, as suffused with the need for physical contact as they are alert to its dangers and prohibitions.
Listen to Hadreas, who performs under the name Perfume Genius, in his song “On the Floor,” from the new “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately”: “How long till this washes away?” he sings in a breathy croon over funky, undulating guitars, “How long till my body is safe?” Or check out Sumney opening his new 20-song opus “Græ” with a little lesson on the etymology of the word “isolation” — turns out it stems from the same root word that gave us “island.”
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Released Friday after elaborate rollouts reflecting each act’s status as an underground star turned queer icon in waiting, both of these stunning art-soul records were conceived before the coronavirus fundamentally changed the nature of human interaction. In interviews, the singers — Sumney, 28, was born in Southern California and now lives in Asheville, N.C.; Hadreas, 38, grew up in Seattle and is now based in Los Angeles — have spoken about the ways in which desire is framed by race, sexuality and religion. Their songs, as delivered in flexible voices that blur traditional notions of gender, look beyond simple binaries to ponder the countless possibilities for self-presentation and for the types of connections available among people.
“I insist upon my right to be multiple — even more so, I insist upon the recognition of my multiplicity,” goes a spoken-word segment in Sumney’s “also also also and and and.”
Yet he and Hadreas ground their songs in a sometimes harsh reality informed by Sumney’s background as a second-generation American (born to Christian pastors from Ghana) and Hadreas’ past trauma as a victim of bullying and worse.
So when Sumney sings in the throbbing “Conveyor” about how “the carpenter bee dies when he finally leaves a sting,” you know he wasn’t pondering the body’s demands in a no-contact world when he wrote it. Today, though, it’s hard to understand the song outside that context. And really what’s the difference between the two interpretations? Unlike much in the mostly white, heteronormative indie-rock scene through which both men came up, this is music about confronting the forces arrayed against you, be they social, political, biological or otherwise; the particulars may change but the yearning for liberation is a constant.
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Indeed, bodies play such an important role in both albums that it’s as though each artist — neither especially known for his movement early in his career — was waiting for a time when mere touching would become an act of daring for anyone. Last year Hadreas helped create a dance-and-music piece with the choreographer Kate Wallich, and his recent videos have all been built around his dancing; Sumney showcases his physical form too on “Græ’s” cover and in the clip for “Cut Me,” in which he describes pain — “A stiffness inside my neck / Banging my head against the desk” — as a measure of his aliveness.
In “Jason,” a lightly baroque pop song decorated with strings and harpsichord, Hadreas recounts a one-night stand in language with an almost tactile heft: “Jason undressed me / Lying on his sheets / He did not do the same / Even his boots were on.” And Sumney’s “Colouour” is a twinkly jazz ballad that has him advising an intimate to try wearing earth tones “since you claim you wanna die / The color of compost might make you feel revived.”
Beyond the lyrics and the visuals, “Græ” and “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” are constantly calling attention to the corporeal presence of mouths and fingers on instruments. In a pronounced shift from their more minimal previous records — Sumney’s debut, 2017’s “Aromanticism,” was dominated by guitar and voice, while the first few Perfume Genius albums had an ascetic avant-cabaret vibe — both artists convened expansive crews of high-prestige players who brought all manner of textures to the music. Hadreas worked here with producer Blake Mills and several old-school session pros including drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Pino Palladino; Sumney chipped away at his set with help from James Blake, Jill Scott, Thundercat and Daniel Lopatin (of Oneohtrix Point Never), among many others.
So equipped, Hadreas moves from the grungy slow-mo rock of “Describe” to the driving “Nothing At All” to “Borrowed Light,” a kind of zero-gravity torch song arranged for electric piano; Sumney alternates clean-toned electric-guitar reveries like “In Bloom” and “Keep Me Alive” with more synthed-up cuts such as “Virile,” a searing critique of toxic masculinity that’s got some chest-beating Nine Inch Nails in it.
For listeners with more time than usual to burrow into an ambitious new record, these two go about as deep as you can get — one more way Sumney and Hadreas seem to have anticipated the emotional needs of the moment.
Yet as busy as the music can occasionally feel, both albums keep close track of the singers’ voices, which always merit the attention: Echoing David Bowie, Scott Walker and Luther Vandross, they coo, moan, growl and murmur as though they’re performing their songs of passion and revulsion just for you.
With each of us marooned on our own private island, I suppose that’s precisely what they’re doing.
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