'No Shape' review: A soaring, bombastic and meditative album from Perfume Genius
In many ways, No Shape is an apt name for Perfume Genius’ newest album. Across 13 songs, Mike Hadreas, who makes music under the Perfume Genius moniker, lets us in to explore a world that manages to traverse boundaries — of longing, of love and of sonic experimentation, each song well within the wheelhouse of music that Hadreas has made in the past, but each also moodier, more evocative, and more of the moment.
The ambitious record, which was released in early May, takes Hadreas’ otherworldly voice and builds an eclectic album around it, with songs that change, but that are its core, music about love. These aren’t the saccharine love songs that one is accustomed to though, but instead uses the song to take listeners on a discursive listen, one that invokes self-love, devotional love and erotic love and more.
If 2014’s Too Bright announced that Hadreas was shining a spotlight on his queerness with lyrics like, “No family’s safe/when I sashay,” on that album’s highlight, ‘Queen’, on No Shape, Hadreas seems to be making music that presaged the elevation of a conservative Republican as America’s president, forgoing a bold statement for nuanced, unsettling and identifiable lyrics, that ring out in Hadreas’ croon. Here then, is an album about love that also includes a song about erotic asphyxiation, with the lyrics saying, “I would die 4 you”, but that opens with a piano ballad that erupts in glittering synths. Like most people, the music on Perfume Genius’ new album contains multitudes.
The lead single ‘Slip Away’, is an odd to physical pleasure but like most of Hadreas’ lyrics typify the push and pull of and the sacred and the profane, sometimes in the space of a single line as in the opening couplet here — “Don't hold back, I want to break free/God is singing through your body”. Taken within the context of the album, it becomes one song in the journey that the always vulnerable Hadreas has traversed, from a once recovering junkie, to a man in a committed relationship (the album’s last song, ‘Alan’ is named for his partner, Alan Wyffels) and everything that comes from the worlds in-between, ‘Slip Away’ strips bare his soul over a throbbing, percussive beat. Where the album excels, is in its embrace of the soaring and bombastic before swiftly moving to the meditative.
Throughout the album, listeners will discern snippets of musical influence from artists like Kate Bush to Sade. Whether it be the reworking of Bush’s lyrics on album stand-out ‘Wreath’ or taking Sade’s silky sound to heart and reinterpreting it on ‘Die 4 You’, which, not surprisingly, is the aforementioned tune about asphyxiation, No Shape is that rare record that manages to go from exuberant girl group pop, to art pop, without jarring the listener. Each song is a distinct world — with homages and witty asides, for those who know where to look. The one thing tying it all together is Hadreas’ voice, which serves as the listeners guide through each song — always human, and never contained, it seems to be exploring each sonic landscape to find the best fit, and taken as a whole, the album can seem to be quest to find the music that best suits Hadreas’ voice.
Ultimately, the album is a distinct and cohesive statement that is helped by production from Blake Mills. From the minimalist ‘Go Ahead’ which is indebted to R&B, and its use of unusual percussion to the soaring and sometimes glittery and campy ‘Wreath’ there’s something for every mood. No Shape rewards an immersive listen as it allows one to marvel at the breadth of influences, and be haunted by the beguiling falsetto that serves as a guide for every listen. As an album, it is tailor made for the internet age, when listeners jump from one song to another, allowing them an omnivores ability to sample different genres. It's fitting then that No Shape is a formless ever-shifting triumph, showcasing the many facets of the musicians’s persona and musical styles.