Amidst the bottles being popped and the hands being raised to the air vicariously, homosexuality is something of an anomaly within the sphere of popular music. Between Sam Smith’s batch of poe-faced balladry remaining almost cynically universal in its execution and Frank Ocean’s brand of altogether more earnest material still being characterized by little more than his use of personal pronoun, Mike Hadreas’ choice to not merely exist as “an artist that happens to be gay” and instead as an artist who places his sexuality at the core of his music and visuals is an undeniably more fascinating case. On paper, it sounds almost like a gimmick and, in the hands of somebody lacking Hadreas’ poetic sensibility, Too Bright could be branded anything from self-pitying to exploitive. Instead, Hadreas’ third record sees him step out of his comfort zone and come out a stronger artist as a result.
The album opens with Hadreas in achingly familiar territory with the aptly titled ‘I Decline’. Harking back to 2012’s ‘Put Yr Back N 2 It’ in all but grandeur, its function best works as that of a red herring, effectively setting the listener up for another record best enjoyed with a glass of merlot in one hand, Marlboro lights in the other as you stare decadently at the deer-head hanging above your fireplace. The task of introducing fans to the more menacing and tortured soundscape the record has to offer instead falls upon lead single ‘Queen’, a pummelling testament to Hadreas’ new found fearlessness, boasting the line “No family is safe when I sashay”.
Hadreas’ recently spoke of Ridley Scott’s ‘Legend’ as an influence for the record’s more assertive and ultimately darker manner, citing its ability to fuse “pretty” images with a sense of underlying “rotting” beneath its exterior. No more is this apparent than on standout ‘Longpig’, an almost demonic fusion of effervescently camp synths and a drum beat with all the menace and dread of death row.
To say that the brushes with Hadreas’ typical brand of piano balladry in Too Bright are its low-points would be doing them a major disservice; collectively they serve to enhance the record’s feeling of austerity and feature the album’s more earnest lyrical content (such as bodily entrapment in ‘Don’t Let Them In’ or the fully-fledged self-condemnation in 'Fool'). But it’s within the confines of the more experimental offerings that Hadreas new twisted and abrasive soundscape is affirmed as the perfect home for his brand of tortured poetry.
The album's ability to convey “an underlying rage” Hadreas cites as having built up since the age of 10 across an almost punishingly concise 30 minute affair is both a wonder and tinged with a longing for something more. Perhaps born out of electronic music having characteristically longer track lengths, it’s a testament to the intricacies of the instrumentals in Too Bright that its biggest issue is hindering the seemingly boundless capabilities of its soundscape with abrupt track lengths. A track like centrepiece ‘My Body’ could easily by twice as long as allow itself the breathing space for its instrumental to simmer with the venom that doesn’t quite reach the surface.
As it stands, the existence of Too Bright is both culturally relevant and totally idiosyncratic for its balance of lyrical bravado and unabashed honesty, as well as providing a sonic stepping stone for whatever Hadreas has planned next.
Words: Liam O'Hanlan