Review | No Shape is Perfume Genius at his best

Perfume Genius 

No Shape

[Matador Records]

On his last record, Mike Hadreas was pissed off.  While the first two Perfume Genius LPs consisted of intimate, queer-edged bedroom pop, Too Bright was a full of fed up frustrations and explosive anthems that blew the hinges off the proverbial closet door. Songs like ‘Queen’ were nail polished middle fingers aimed at the regressive stereotypes and backward legislation that the LGBT community are expected to endure quietly. More than just a musical activist, Hadreas was as angry at himself as much as anyone else. Looking inward, he chastised the substance fueled lifestyle of his early 20’s and feared the ever-present possibility of another relapse.

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In the 3 years since Too Bright, things should have gotten better, but it’s been one step forward and two steps back. In 2015 Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by a popular vote. But just this year, America’s brand-new Vice president who believes in conversion therapy via electroshock treatment and the reported horrors facing gay men in Chechnya are both sobering reminders that an end to the struggle is nowhere near in sight.  

Hadreas’ response to these injustices is not another political show-stopper. Instead, with No Shape, he is eager to demonstrate the universal nature of queer experiences through gorgeously ornate pop that’s sparse, spacious and sometimes sizable. The record’s most profound statement is that it’s a ‘gay album’ that isn’t really about being gay. These are tracks that ultimately tell what should be an obvious truth: the anxieties, romantic ambitions, prideful jubilation and love aching sentiments of homosexual men are no different then their heterosexual counterparts.        


While the world has been up in flames, the life of Perfume Genius has been in uneasy state of contentment: he’s living happily with his boyfriend of 8 years, he’s been sober for just as long, and the boring normalcy of everyday life is a both a reminder of his achievements and of the risk that it could all go wrong at any moment. In an interview with The Fader, he seems downright surprised that “I haven’t fucked it up. I haven’t left. I haven’t gone back to the way I used to be”. No Shape is a musical ode to staying the course, because veering off on to the beaten track will have you driving off a cliff’s edge.

The opener sees Hadreas acknowledging that he’s made it to the ‘Otherside’. It starts out with his fragile croon backed up by just the gentle plinking of piano keys until a glistening eruption of instrumentation crashes in. These brief explosions of euphoria are sprinkled throughout the album as if to highlight instances when our singer can allow himself to, just for a moment, enjoy the life he has made. It’s something that’s also apparent on the thunderous lead single ‘Slip Away’, a tribal-influenced banger with a glorious cacophony for a chorus. Hadreas is determined for he and his partner to be the same people that fell in love with each other in the first place, to make sure “love will never break the shape we make”. It’s the nay saying voices in his head, the ones that state otherwise, that he wants to ‘let slip away’. 

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Elsewhere Hadreas can’t seem to escape the temptations and visual cues of his former life. On the seemingly winsome sounding ‘Valley’, our singer offers a scathing self-portrait. In the song, he sees what he thinks is one of his former rehab buddies, off the wagon and on the street. Instead of judging her, he can only empathise, almost sounding jealous of her decision to let go: “How long must we live right /Before we don’t even have to try?” he laments.  On the spirited, synth swelling standout ‘Wreath’, the monotony of the passing days still isn’t a comfort but rather it ticks by in sweat-inducing fashion like a clock in an Edgar Allen Poe story.     

True to its name No Shape is almost formless save for a few clear singles. The underlying tension in the words Hadreas sings, between the wilderness of his youth and the comfort of his present, is mirrored in the opulent pop and the classical instrumentation. ‘Choir’s’ accelerated string work   is like the Moonlight soundtrack until Hadreas’ hushed vocals strain the atmosphere and the Weyes Blood featuring ‘Sides’ sounds like the twin peaks theme with a slide guitar.  The more supposedly straight forward love songs can’t resist subversion. On the lovely, languid ‘Die for You’  Hadreas channels his inner Beth Gibbons on a song that uses auto-erotic asphyxiation as a metaphor for trust and devotion.  

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Even when Hadreas is at peace, he’s not quite at peace. Captivating closer ‘Alan’, dedicated to Hadreas’ long-time partner, ends the record on endearingly, tender-hearted note. In his most convincing vocal performance yet, Hadreas sings to his beloved “Rest easy / I’m here/ How weird”. It’s a barefaced lyric about the fear and joy of a near decade long allegiance to another but its startling honestly also amplifies the affection tenfold.   

Unlike with Too Bright, there are no middle America skewering lines like “No Family is safe/ when I sashay” here. But No Shape is an equally important entry to the canon of LGBT focused art . In fact, it is this artist’s strongest release. This time out, Perfume Genius is simply carrying the burden of being himself , proving that his experience is one defined by his humanity and not his sexuality.  Mike Hadreas’ happiness is hard-work, but it’s also hard earned.  


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