No Shape kicks off with a truly magical moment. Opening track “Otherside” begins with the steady plink of a piano as Mike Hadreas’ warm and familiar voice floats into frame. It sounds a lot like what we’ve come to expect from a Perfume Genius song, a sort of fractured beauty that the project has conjured up for the past seven years. But then something big happens. “Rocking you to sleep, from the Otherside,” Hadreas sings, a comforting and ghostly apparition. There’s a pause. And then, like God herself coming down from heaven, there’s a burst of glittery noise and chimes and a choir of angels. It lasts for only a few seconds before fading back into the same piano plink, the same stasis, but then it happens again. And again. It’s jarring and bold, and it’s one of the most beautiful moments you’ll hear in music all year. It’s a statement of intent.
After Too Bright, it was easy to imagine Perfume Genius going in a more purely pop direction, but No Shape is Hadreas’ most experimental work yet. It may also be his best, or at least his most ambitious. And it’s a weird album — it’s loud and busy and every song has a lot of moving parts. Hadreas recorded the album with producer Blake Mills in Los Angeles, and Mills’ technique makes it so that every instrument is upfront and distinct, vying on the same level playing field, and none of them sound like what you’d expect them to. Guitars are strangled, strings feel like knives, every beat sounds like vomit. It’s a lot to absorb in a way that Perfume Genius’ music often hasn’t been in the past, and the whole album has a sort of macabre sonic vocabulary that introduces itself gradually. Bones cracking, bodies writhing around in pain and ecstasy — that’s what the album sounds like. It’s the most physical music Hadreas has ever made. The project has always occupied some middle ground between haunting and lovely, but No Shape nails the ugly-beautiful dichotomy more successfully than any of his other work so far.
Hadreas has always been an economical songwriter, but he’s gotten more abstract with each album. His best songs used to be based around concrete if oblique narratives, positioning him as something of an impressionistic storyteller — think “Mr. Peterson” or “Dark Parts” or “Hood” — but the songs on No Shape are less tethered to narrative and more about capturing fleeting moments of happiness, depression, isolation. As his themes have gotten broader over the years, Hadreas’ writing has followed suit. Compare Too Bright’s breakout hit “Queen” with No Shape’s second single, “Go Ahead.” They’re very different songs, but both bear some of the same intent: They’re fabulous soft flexes, meant to both goad and empower. But where “Queen” has a ton of context and pins itself to the queer community’s long history of disenfranchisement, “Go Ahead” is more subtle in its execution: “Now watch me/ Watch me walk on by/ Honestly/ Next one won’t be free.” Both are Hadreas tempting the world to fuck with him, but “Go ahead and try” is a much more restrained take on “No family is safe when I sashay.” One is carefully constructed, while the other registers as a fragment.
A lot of the songs on No Shape are like that. Hadreas opts for a more tenuous structure than he has in the past, and many of these songs lack a distinctive form. That means there are fewer standout tracks, but the album hangs together more effectively as a mood piece. And that formlessness feels intentional. On No Shape, Hadreas plays with the notion of ephemerality. “A lot of the album is about my being into not having a body, the idea of transcending it,” he said in an interview. “I feel kind of limited and locked into my body and brain — I’m not super into it all the time. I like the idea of something taking a different shape than the one I feel like I’m stuck with.” Hadreas has been vocal about his lifelong struggle with Crohn’s disease and how that affects his mood, and he’s starting to engage wth those feelings more in his music. It started on Too Bright tracks like “Grid” and “My Body,” and it’s no coincidence that No Shape feels the most similar to those confrontational but amorphous songs.
“Wreath,” one of the best tracks on the album, contains a nod to Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” — also an obvious touchpoint for the record’s sound — but where Bush has said that her song is about how a relationship would be more functional if the man and woman switched places in order to better understand the other gender, Hadreas’ boundary-free take on a similar concept centers around the desire to shed our physical form in order to better understand ourselves. “Burn off every trace/ I wanna hover with no shape/ I wanna feel the days go by/ Not stack up,” he sings. “Running up that hill/ I’m gonna peel off every weight/ Until my body gives away/ And shuts up.” It sees Hadreas acting as an observer to his own life, reflecting on his own mortality with an omniscient eye: “I see a wreath upon the grave.”
But there’s a twist at the heart of No Shape that keeps it from ever feeling like Hadreas is arguing that life has no meaning, or that one would be better off not existing at all. Because for all his talk of displacement and alienation, by all accounts, it seems like Hadreas is pretty content in real life. After a history of substance abuse that was addressed in passing on his first two albums, Hadreas has settled down in Washington State with a dog and his longtime partner (and creative collaborator) Alan Wyffels. So a lot of the album ends up being about how to reconcile these two conflicting feelings: the idea that you want to run away from your life and body while also having a stable and supportive foundation.
No Shape holds no specific answers to that conundrum, but it does suggest that maybe things aren’t as formless as Hadreas initially suggests. Love is solid, family is solid. Take the chorus of “Slip Away”: “Oh love, they’ll never break the shape we take/ Baby, let all them voices slip away.” The exuberant lead single is about throwing yourself into a relationship — a weightlessness of a different kind that can be just as terrifying, but the song suggests that if everything goes alright, you’ll land on solid ground. That’s echoed in closing track “Alan,” a tender ode to his partner that acknowledges just how bizarre it is to find happiness when you feel so at odds with yourself: “Did you notice we sleep through the night?/ Did you notice everything is alright?/ You need me/ Rest easy/ I’m here/ How weird.”
For all its grotesque sounds and haunting imagery, No Shape is an album about feeling content, for the most part, and it’s the kind of take on complacency that only Hadreas could give us. It’s a creeping, cinematic album about the guilt of a dark past forever haunting your own self-perception and self-worth. It’s about the unfortunate reality that no matter how good something appears, there’s a simmering sadness just below the surface. That’s an idea that’s cropped up in Hadreas’ previous portraiture of small-town America, but never has it felt more universal or vital as it does on No Shape because, instead of languishing in that sadness, Hadreas has offered an escape. Whether that’s taking on a different shape or spending a lot of time at home with your dog (or both!), Perfume Genius’ fourth album presents an alternative narrative that isn’t perfect, but feels good enough. And that’s special.
No Shape is out 5/5 via Matador.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Slowdive’s self-titled comeback album
• Mac DeMarco’s This Old Dog
• At-The Drive In’s in·ter a·li·a
• Chris Stapleton’s From A Room: Vol. 1
• Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Merle Haggard tribute Best Troubador
• Cayetana’s New Kind Of Normal
• Forest Swords’ Compassion
• Joan Shelley’s self-titled album
• Blondie’s Pollinator
• The Afghan Whigs’ In Spades
• Jesu / Sun Kil Moon’s 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth
• Nite Jewel’s Real High
• Pond’s The Weather
• Brother Ali’s All The Beauty In This Whole Life
• Juana Molina’s Halo
• Hoops’ Routines
• Carl Craig’s Versus
• Walter Martin’s My Kinda Music
• Black Lips’ Satan’s Graffiti Or God’s Art?
• Alex Napping’s Mise En Place
• Harmony Woods’ Nothing Special
• Emperor X’s Oversleepers International
• Big Walnuts Yonder’s self-titled debut
• Nightlands’ I Can Feel The Night Around Me
• Moon Duo’s Occult Architecture Vol. 2
• Penguin Café’s The Imperfect Sea
• Tiny Vipers’ Laughter
• Niia’s I
• Eyelids’ or
• Oxbow’s Thin Black Duke
• Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda’s World Spirituality Classics 1 compilation
• Brandi Carlile’s all-star cover album 10 Years Of The Story – An Album To Benefit War Child
• Trophy Dad’s Dogman EP
• Bibio’s Beyond Serious EP
• Ian William Craig’s Slow Vessels EP
• Flasher’s “Winnie” b/w “Burn Blue” 7″