From the quiet bedroom recordings on his debut Learning to the subtle ballads on Put Your Back N 2 It to the pop swagger on Too Bright, the music Mike Hadreas creates as Perfume Genius has gotten bigger and bolder with every album. For his fourth album, No Shape, Hadreas continues his impressive streak with another record that retains his unique voice while incorporating new sounds and ambitions.
Perfume Genius has always explored the queer experience, especially the traumas on the path to embracing one’s identity. Even at its most exuberant, the music battles with a darker tension. The stellar single “Queen” from Too Bright, for example, projects a powerful confidence musically, but the song, according to Perfume Genius’s camp, is about “gay panic.” On No Shape, that tension is still present, but more subdued, subordinated by the extraordinary strength of love.
No Shape feels more celebratory than any Perfume Genius record to date; that celebration often runs deliciously wild. Too Bright also swung for the fences, but its immaculately constructed pop songs always felt well under control. Both albums open with gentle piano, but No Shape opener “Otherside” can hardly contain itself. It explodes into glitter and euphoria after a minute, and then leads into the triumphant lead single “Slip Away.”
“Slip Away” just might be Perfume Genius’s finest song to date. The conflict between preserving your identity and survival, at the heart of so much of Perfume Genius’s work, is there. “They’ll never break the shape we take”—Hadreas is singing from the battlements, but there’s no doubt he’ll make it through to the morning. Even if the enemy is scaling the walls, this music remains triumphant.
Nothing else on No Shape matches the transcendence of “Slip Away”. That kind of brazen euphoria is anomalous on the album and Perfume Genius’s career in general. Much of the middle of the album follows slower, gentle ballads; the songs resemble Put Your Back N 2 It in tempo and Too Bright in production value, but they follow a logic entirely their own. Hadreas follows his intuition, which leads him to peculiar rhythms and sudden bursts of sound that continually surprise. From the early burst of sound on “Otherside” to the hypnotic forward march of “Valley” (another album standout), No Shape surprises you with a constant intimacy punctuated by thwarted expectations.
All the music is characterized by a baroque sense of melodrama, but if No Shape has one defining quality, from “No Shape” to more delicate tracks like “Every Night,” it’s confidence. Hadreas is in complete control of his extensive gifts, trusting his instincts to guide to someplace at once comforting and foreign. He achieves both on nearly every track. Occasionally, No Shape can come off as somewhat saccharine, twee pushed past its melting point. “Just Like Love” is one such example, though it undoubtedly suffers from coming immediately after “Slip Away,” a tough act to follow. The danger of leading with such an incredible track is always that everything else seems smaller.
More often than not, however, this album brings you into its world and convinces you that love really is redemptive, that it can hold back the hounds at the gate. Hadreas, one imagines, knows this better than most. While the music of Perfume Genius has always had been richly authentic, it’s especially so in No Shape. Many of these songs are inspired in part by Alan Wyffels, Hadreas’s boyfriend, and musical collaborator for the past eight years. The last song on the album is named for Alan; it immerses you like a cloud, then lifts you up with it as Hadreas howls, “Rest easy, I’m here. How weird!” Like Perfume Genius, love is many things, weird in so many wonderful ways. B PLUS