No Shape by Perfume Genius is a piece of scintillating aural bliss that takes aim at the oppression of inherent outsiders and celebrates difference and defiance. The album, which is Mike Hadreas’ fourth as Perfume Genius, is not for the fainthearted; after all it is a rare breed that can combine bygone piano ballads with explosive phrasing and ultra-modern issues.
If you listen back on Hardeas’ catalogue of albums, they play out like a coming of age tale. As he has evolved, so has his music. And whilst Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It are hugely introspective works, and at times feel like wading through a thick swamp of self-audit, Too Bright and No Shape are more outward, and can be understood on a universal level. You would have to be joyless not to be moved to celebrate your differences after listening to Slip Away, and you would have to be pretty cold not to be touched by the sincerity and poignancy of Alan.
It is fitting the album is called No Shape, firstly because the sound is so hard to pin down. It ranges in influence from Sufjan Stevens, to Radiohead to Paul Simon. No Shape also eludes to Hardeas’ fascination with body and physical identity as well as his desire to transcend the flesh. The lyrics on the album grapple with his sexuality, his repulsion and delight in his body, as well as his confusion over it’s shifting place within an appearance-obsessed and gay-fearing society. But ultimately, the album is a tale of Hadreas’ breaking through the fold, a story of a man finding peace and finding stability.
Hadreas’ vocals may not technically be the best in the business, but he has a style of his own, and he sings with such vulnerability and yearning that it means his vocals might just be the most effecting in the business. Genuine kindness, tenderness and wit are strewn throughout the lyrics in No Shape, and it makes for a completely believable and moving experience.
Hadreas’ has spoken openly in the past about being afraid of doing too much in his music, and this is apparent in No Shape. Songs like Every Night, Die 4 You and Braid are less steered and more stripped back, less engineered and more innate. The result is an intimate cluster of songs that are masterfully minimalistic and deceptively simple, yet still manage to carry the signature Perfume Genius grandiosity and eroticism thanks to transcending vocal work and lush production.
In Wreath he makes it clear he is a man shedding his skin, and perhaps points most obviously at the thesis of the album. The song talks about becoming anew and surpassing the confines of physical form. He also speaks of being ready and wanting to enjoy life, with the line, “Burn off every trace, I wanna hover with no shape, I wanna feel the days go by, not stack up”.
Songs like Wreath, Slip Away, Just Like Love and Otherside are crushing, heartfelt modern ballads and seem to be where Hadreas’ is most powerful; mixing his engineering and production excellence with unique melodies and unorthodox timings and accompanying it all with witty lyrics, delivered with soul.
One of the most intriguing songs on the album is Choir, which sounds like it was made deep underwater, somewhere very distant but somehow familiar. The song focuses on tone and texture and proves yet again that he is ahead of the curve in producing unique and avant garde sounds as he sings atop a fast paced, soaring violin.
While all the songs are explorative and play with layers, tone, reverberation, space and instrumentation, and all work to create hooks and sections that draw the ear and have a trance like effect, strangely, the album plays out like two different people. Every Night marks the change in personality. The first half of the album is the celebratory, angsty, high energy pop side, with electronic hooks and dramatic shifts reminiscent of his most pop release to date, Too Bright. The second half is the slow, emotional, introspective half, complete with a lot of piano and classical influences.
Together the two parts could be seen as poetically summarising the opposing forces that someone who is fighting for their place and rights in this world may experience; the defiance, the degradation, the resolve and for the lucky few, self-acceptance. However, the album does feel at times like two different records in one, and as such, it can become a little exhausting, especially towards the end. You can’t help but feel that had Hadreas cherry picked the stronger songs and kept the album succinct, it would have had more impact.
Sonically, the album is as pleasing as it is thematically and emotionally, with booming and glistening piano, strings, horn and electronics that leave you gasping for air and wanting more. And as much as it leaves you stunned and in awe, it also draws you in with subtle hooks and textures that have a quite dignity, a modesty, a finesse and an artistic wit that not many could pull off.
The only thing that lets the album down is Hadreas’ inability to trim the fat. Nonetheless, we are still left with a breathtaking album that will open your heart and mind.