Review: Perfume Genius 'No Shape'

For years now, Perfume Genius (real name Mike Hadreas) has been ripping himself open, tearing parts of himself out, and offering them, dripping, to his audience. His first two albums, Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It were dark and lo-fi reflections on a childhood filled with abuse and homophobia, but on his third record, Too Bright, he introduced a new swaggering defiance in lead single ‘Queen’. Now comes No Shape, and there’s been yet another change. Hadreas is in love, and with that love he has found intermittent respite from the myriad horrors of trying to do what should be simple, but what so often isn’t: be himself in the world.

Hadreas seeks to transcend the harsh realities of his existence, and in doing so he has created an album full of transcendent moments. The stripped minimalism of his first two albums is reimagined in the opening moments of ‘Otherside’, his voice raw and tremulous, light as a feather in a breeze. Then it ignites, bursting into iridescent colour. The soft soft soft loud pattern is followed again in ‘Slip Away’, in which he exhorts ‘don’t hold back / I want to break free’, and ‘let those voices slip away’. These are the voices, we might assume, who whisper that ‘no family is safe when [he] sashays’ a la ‘Queen’. It’s a state of mind he proffers to a young, flamboyantly dressed boy on ‘Just Like Love’, in which he tells him ‘They’ll talk, give them every reason’. His defiant self-expression is often channelled through sweet melodies, rarely aggressive or confrontational, but rather lush and expansive. When he challenges his aggressors to ‘Go ahead and try’, he does so with a vocal so subtle, and in a register so sweet, that it’s a provocation in itself.

The second half of the album shifts. The provocation changing from rapturous orchestration to sensual, R&B inflected instrumentals and at times some outright sexual lyrics. On ‘Die 4 You’ Hadreas sings of erotic asphyxiation as the ultimate vulnerable act. His vocal delivery is breathy, a combination of Portishead and Prince. On ‘Sides’ and ‘Run Me Through’ he introduces a guitar tone that so conjures Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks that it’s hard not to imagine the dark plushness of One Eyed Jack’s, and the latter of which contains the most explicit lyrics on the record. It’s ‘Alan’, though, the closing track and the most intimate, dedicated to Hadreas’ boyfriend and long-time musical collaborator Alan Wyffels that demonstrates the greatest change in outlook. ‘Did you notice baby, everything’s alright’ he sings, the vocal refrain ‘I’m here, how weird’ showing Hadreas’ surprise that, for him, things are working out. It’s a stark contrast from the sung-spoken word of ‘Choir’ in which he anxiously narrates ‘It’s weird here’ in a place that ‘keeps him locked’. He can sleep now, next to Wyfells, where in ‘Choir’ he couldn’t dream.

This is a record about change, and Hadreas has achieved a development of his sound that reflects that. In love, he’s arrived at a place that he seems never to have imagined he’d reach. He’s also got to a position within the industry in which he’s no longer just critically acclaimed while remaining for the most part in the shadows. No Shape is about being present, choosing not to hide any longer. He’s here, now, and he’s ready.  

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