by Ryan Fine
Perfume Genius, the solo project of Seattle’s Mike Hadreas, has changed a lot since its minimalistic debut Learning in 2010. That record was an intimate, deeply honest reflection on the love, loss, and fear inherent in being a member of the LGBT community in modern America, and with each subsequent record, Hadreas has kept a similar message while giving the music a greater immediacy and pop appeal. Throughout all adaptations of his sound, his project has kept a nearly unparalleled standard of quality. Every Perfume Genius album since 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It has been one of the best albums of its respective year, and No Shape seems to be on pace to keep that trend going. Continuing down a path that is now well established for him, Hadreas has once again made his most bombastic album to date; still, beneath all the pounding drums and explosive walls of sound lies a reliably heartbreaking, confessional album that leaves very little to guessing.
“Don’t hold back, I want to break free”
Upon discovering that a new Perfume Genius album was imminent, I foolishly reasoned that it would need to be more restrained than his previous album, because there was no way he could make a bigger song than “Queen” and still keep it reasonably good. But “Slip Away”, the lead single from No Shape, is not only a candidate for the most massive Perfume Genius song to date; it’s also probably the best song of the year so far. The peaks and valleys of its dynamic range make it stand out as a jaw-dropping moment, even among all the other beautiful songs this album has to offer.
The introductory track of the album, “Otherside”, is similar in this regard. The first sounds on the record are cold, distant piano arpeggios, and the first minute would not be out of place on one of the first two Perfume Genius albums. However, as the song progresses, pummeling soundscapes come out of nowhere and unleash every force of nature at once upon the listener. The vast array of sound sources used in this one short moment foreshadows the entire album that follows it. No Shape contains far more instrumental variation than Hadreas has ever used before.
Apart from the assortment of very well-placed percussion accessories that find themselves at unexpected points on this record (notably the eerie cowbell breaks on “Go Ahead”), there are countless other daring instrumental choices that lend much more color to the album than if it had been only Hadreas at the piano once again. The hidden gem “Choir”, for instance, is driven by a violin line that barrels forward like the horses of the apocalypse while Hadreas simultaneously seems to be whispering into the listener’s ears. Despite essentially being a sampler platter of hundreds of different sounds, this record always sounds free and unrestrained without feeling like the mess it could have been.
Flowing in phases
For an album called No Shape, this record is certainly far from formless. In fact, it is probably the most cohesively flowing Perfume Genius album to date. The album essentially exists in two phases with the first one being inhabited mostly by catchy, sprawling pop tunes. These songs pull the listener in and build an expectation that the rest of the album will be equally danceable. But something changes after “Wreath” and pulls that expectation out from under the rug, starting with the detached beauty of “Every Night”. From this point forward, the default mode of the album is slow and incredibly dark.
After the previously mentioned “Choir” comes the unconventional love song “Die 4 You”, which shares a similar subject matter with “Run Me Through” later on. The entire final stretch of the album flows like a river until the end (though it does cut off slightly awkwardly at the end of the closing track), and the album never once breaks character after it decides to take a more hellish, Xiu Xiu-esque aesthetic. Although the sharp divide of “the catchy half” and “the dark half” might turn some people away as an unwise artistic choice, it does lend some definite unity to the record when interpreted as a descent into madness.
No shape, no secrets
Thought I’d hide / Maybe leave something secret behind / Never thought I’d sing outside.
Like all Perfume Genius music, No Shape is full of creative metaphors that are easy enough to read into and well worth the trouble to do so. The album offers a meticulously detailed exploration of the mind of Mike Hadreas, including his deepest emotions and even sexual fantasies. The songs “Die 4 You” and “Run Me Through” both detail enactments of very specific sexual fetishes and prove that Hadreas is willing to put even the most private, potentially embarrassing parts of his psyche out on the table if it will lend his music the feeling it needs. Hadreas has described “Die 4 You” as a song about erotic asphyxiation, in the sense of someone completely giving themselves over to another person to the point that they might very well die to make them happy.
Conversely, the closing track “Alan” is an evaluation of Hadreas’ life up to this point, named after his boyfriend of eight years. Like “Braid” a couple of tracks before it, “Alan” is of course a reflection on his current relationship, but it’s also more general than that. Back on his 2012 album Put Your Back N 2 It, Hadreas essentially sang about fear and struggle. Despite increased acceptance in recent years, Hadreas still felt like an outsider in the world as a gay man, like society was working against him while trying to tell him he was supposed to feel equal. With lines in “Alan” such as the simple refrain “I’m here / How weird”, he moves from a place of terror toward a thankful approach. Despite all the hardships of marginalization he still ended up being one of the ones who made it after all, and now he uses his platform to recognize those who have not been nearly as lucky.
“Die 4 You”
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All images from Spin
Mike Hadreas is now four albums into his career, and the consistency of the quality in his music remains absolutely staggering. 'No Shape' is a marked improvement in the same style as the previous Perfume Genius album 'Too Bright', taking many risks and containing even more variation than its predecessor. Hadreas’ primary goal is no longer to simply document his fear as a gay man in modern society. Now that he has gained more confidence in the spotlight, he is trying to project that confidence onto people who still need it and to remind the world that even though same-sex marriage is legal for the time being, there is still a long fight ahead before true equality is achieved. For this reason, Mike Hadreas is not only a great songwriter and performer but also a necessary artistic figure for today’s society.