NO SHAPE by Perfume Genius
Genre: Art Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Slip Away,” “Go Ahead,” “Sides,” “Alan”
The first notes of Perfume Genius’s NO SHAPE trickle in gently, lulling you into a moment of familiarity and stillness before exploding into a flurry of glittering soundscapes that span the rest of the album. Perfume Genius’s Mike Hadreas is no stranger to the pains of harassment and isolation, which he has grappled with since his youth. He is also no stranger to music as a source of expression and healing, drawing inspiration from alt-rockers PJ Harvey and Liz Phair. Ever since his debut album, LEARNING, released in 2010, Hadreas has developed a songwriting style that has allowed him to face his perpetrators head on through poetic, raw honesty. Sharing lyrical and sonic sensibilities with indie acts such as St. Vincent and Panda Bear, Perfume Genius manages to fit within alternative music while remaining identifiable due to its customary subject matter. Tackling themes of casual homophobia, suffering, and self-loathing over the course of his three previous albums, Hadreas has established himself as a voice to be reckoned with among a sea of harmless, invulnerable singer-songwriters.
Perfume Genius has experienced moderate commercial exposure, his cover of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” being featured in (ironically) a perfume ad campaign for Prada. He collaborated with Sharon Von Etten on “To Lay Me Down” for the Grateful Dead tribute album DAY OF THE DEAD. Now, three years since glam rock-infused TOO BRIGHT, his fourth studio album NO SHAPE has sent a lightning strike to the indie scene.
On NO SHAPE, Hadreas takes another leap in the direction of artistic realization. Drawing in neo-soul and gospel influences, it’s his most musically diverse work yet. But more importantly, having reached a more level point his life, he operates this time from an emotionally safe space. The result is an unbridled confidence that makes NO SHAPE feel like progress. His moody vocals are perfectly matched with reflective lyrics and sumptuous production, crafting an album that feels both grand and intimate all at once.
NO SHAPE is aptly named—songs are constantly breaking out of their shells with dynamite, only to cool down and reform into something different. The album’s second track, “Slip Away,” begins unassumingly before crashing with reckless abandon. As the album progresses, there are times when this technique is used in a heavy-handed manner. Certain melodies unravel at an inconvenient time, right as the momentum is beginning to build. This is the case with “Wreath,” which establishes a gripping hook only to descend into a series of tangled “yeahs” and “ohs”. If used with more discretion, these unexpected musical metamorphoses would have proven to be more compelling. Hadreas’s voice has a shapeshifting quality itself, embracing rich tones and colors, only to shed them moments later. On “Go Ahead,” a syncopated synth track, his voice has a stylized, quavering affectation as he croons, “What you think? I don’t remember asking.” His restrained voice emits a quiet defiance, a refusal to remain silent in the face of discrimination. With the utmost coolness he delivers, “Baby, I’m already walking in the light.”
Throughout the album Hadreas exercises a healthy amount of theatricality. If his sophomore effort PUT YOUR BACK N 2 IT was his his dress rehearsal, TOO BRIGHT his opening night, then NO SHAPE is his encore. “Choir” soars with orchestral flourishes and hushed vocals, which sound reminiscent to a dramatic aside uttered to oneself. “Sides,” a duet with indie-singer Weyes Blood, drips with dark style a la PJ Harvey. The luscious glam rock elements of TOO BRIGHT make a cameo in the form of metallic guitar, and conjures memories of the late Prince. It’s no accident that the smooth, swaggering “Die 4 You” shares a similar title to “I Would Die 4 U.” At moments it seems as if Hadreas is channeling “The Artist Formerly Known As” from beyond the grave.
The final track on the album, “Alan,” dedicated to Hadreas’s pianist/life partner Alan Wyffles, returns to aching simplicity. It evokes PUT YOUR BACK N 2 IT, where emotionally-charged vocals and piano are the central focus. “Did you notice we sleep through the night,” Hadreas murmurs into his lover’s ear. “Did you notice babe, everything is alright.” Lightly doused in violins, “Alan” is a gorgeously understated lullaby. The return to familiar song structure is not only welcome—by this point in the album, it is desperately needed. Hadreas’s next line, “I’m here, how weird,” carries a profound weight. It resonates like a proclamation made upon a mountaintop whose icy crags have taken years to scale. Although it’s the most straightforward song on the album, we feel like we’ve earned its sincerity and tenderness.
We have arrived to this place with Hadreas as if we’ve reached the end of an epic journey, and the peace that lies there is exquisite. Suffering is temporary, and change is not only possible, it’s inevitable. Big claims to be made, sure, but Perfume Genius’s NO SHAPE makes it feel like it’s a truth humanity has always known.