The work of Mike Hadreas — the Seattle native behind Perfume Genius — was, at least until 2014’s Too Bright, always lo-fi and poignantly intimate. Dark narratives that confront depression, sexuality and the dangers of being gay characterize his first two efforts, Learning (2010) and Put Your Back N 2 It (2012). On Too Bright, the tinny piano and fragile croon metamorphosed into menacing drones and piercing screeches. The deviation in form from Too Bright to No Shape is equally as impressive as that between his second and third records. Anger and frustration, palpable on Too Bright, are almost entirely absent here, and Hadreas’s new mindset is perhaps best explained by a lyric from “Just Like Love”: “They’ll talk / Give them every reason.” It’s not necessarily that his anger has subsided; he has simply shifted focus, from the world outside to his personal life.
If anything is immediately apparent about No Shape, it is that it will be praised for being Hadreas’s most mature or developed work — primarily because it is, both thematically and sonically. It also functions as a thoroughly satisfying denouement for his discography thus far. Learning and Put Your Back were as bare-bones as albums come, reflections of a newly sober Hadreas with an uncertain future. Too Bright saw Hadreas in control enough to express not just sorrow but fury. Now, No Shape, a reflection on Mike’s almost eight years with his boyfriend Alan and eight years of sobriety, is rich with textures, the sort that augment and, ironically, embody the somewhat vague notion of having “no shape.”
Upon first listen, you might wish that Hadreas hadn’t released singles “Slip Away” and “Go Ahead” before the album itself. “Slip Away,” the most triumphant and accessible song of No Shape, proudly announced the direction of the album, and “Go Ahead” signified a level of experimentation to the same degree as found on Too Bright. Both tracks are stunning, and together express Hadreas’s impressive range, but the album’s opening song, “Otherside,” would have been a much more suitable, bait-and-switch style introduction. The track opens with the same tinny-sounding piano of Learning and Put Your Back, but after a minute it explodes with a shimmering synth M83-style. Regardless, no album in 2017 has a better start than No Shape, as “Otherside” launches directly into the joyful protest of “Slip Away.”
From there, the album sprawls in multiple directions. The lush strings — a new addition to Hadreas’s aesthetic — that are introduced during the chorus of the reassuring “Just Like Love” return on “Valley,” the album’s most direct reference to Hadreas’s struggles with addiction: “How long must we live right / Before we don’t even have to try?” In between the two, the offputtingly synthetic “Go Ahead” is No Shape’s “Queen” equivalent, an appropriately prideful but casual reminder to anyone still trying to write off Hadreas for his “weirdness” that they will never be in the right as far as Hadreas is concerned.
What’s so impressive about No Shape isn’t just the breadth of sonic territory it covers, but its ability to do so while also capturing, in many ways, the essence of camp in all its effeminate and kitschy glory. “Wreath,” which references a Kate Bush song, functions as the album’s mission statement: “Burn off every trace / I wanna hover with no shape / I wanna see the days go by.” This song, along with the Weyes Blood-featuring “Sides” and “Run Me Through” seem to invoke Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack, with simple but hard-edged bass and a pervasive air of mystery. “Die 4 You,” Hadreas told Fader in an interview, is about erotic asphyxiation. “Braid” recalls the work of Vincent Gallo with it’s doused, drowned-out quality, while “Choir” feels like a considerably more evil manifestation of Learning’s “Mr. Peterson,” with its closing lines, sung by Hadreas’s voice overlaid with a lower one, “What if I promise / To keep it quiet,” before the melody dissolves into chaotic chimes.
With its ostensible focus on transcending the physical, it would be easy to miss the ultimate focus of No Shape without its closer, “Alan” — named, of course, for Hadreas’s boyfriend. Despite his desire for metaphysicality, Hadreas finally comes to rest, still mystified, on the conclusion: “I’m here / How weird.” On paper, the four words seem too plaintive to invoke feeling, but Hadreas’s soaring croon could probably evoke goosebumps even if he were singing about shaving one’s nose hair (or any number of other equally romantic activities). Whether he means that he is literally there with Alan or simply here, on Earth, is left a mystery. What is absolutely clear, however, is that No Shape should solidify Perfume Genius as not just one of the most important LGBT acts today, but as one of the most important acts today, period.