We owe Perfume Genius an apology. We’re not above the admission of mistake, and Mike Hadreas’s last album Too Bright certainly felt that way too us on initial listen – a bright, blinding, almost garish statement of intent that walloped us properly only weeks later. For that, we’re sorry… but we’re putting it all behind us now as we take on No Shape.
“No shape”. It’s the sort of phrase you might here from a parent, a friend commenting on the attractiveness of a passer-by, or – as a homosexual man – the deal-breaking criterion for attraction. If this were the Perfume Genius of a few years ago, we might acknowledge those as themes to be explored (and queer identity still is under his microscope) but listening to the first single Slip Away the main thought is that, well, it’s all become slight.
As someone known for their searing honesty, and given just how much news there is to rally against on the daily, it’s a confusing surprise. Where is Hadreas’s sense of urgency? “I’m carried by the sound,” he sings, before it hits. “They’ll never break the shape we take.”
As Hadreas himself says in the self-aware press notes: “People are going to be like, why aren’t you talking about these things, because everything’s so terrible. I’m never not talking about it. My life is existing in the fucking face of it. My music will always be in protest.” That’s the crux and the key to unlocking this new record. Like the quiet battles we all fight on the daily, Perfume Genius delivers a world in which he owns his idiosyncratic LGBTQ identity and delivers moments of defiance laced within it.
Funnily enough Hadreas seems to vocally channel his peer ANOHNI for Just Like Love, but the world around him seems a lot more at peace than hers does. Strings stir romantically around Hadreas like they’re soundtracking a slow-motion teacup ride, and it acknowledges his own admission that he’s allowed to “steal from people that are on the inside”. It pops up on the Queen ‘break free’ homage of Slip Away and remains peppered throughout the album.
Sonically, the record is certainly not as in-your-face as its predecessor. On the opener Otherside, Hadreas seems to bridge the sort of sounds we’ve come to know him for: the fragile, almost untouchable bubble of piano-driven songwriting from his early work, suddenly exploded by a bomb of shimmering, glittery production. That balance is revisited as we have the campfire sounds of Go Ahead and Valley immediately offset by the radio-ready Wreath. As presentation goes, it continues to make the case for what we already know by now: no shape means no boxes to fit in either.
But this wouldn’t be a Perfume Genius record without at least one unforgettable moment. Every Night starts a trilogy of these on No Shape, a haunting, barely-there song that takes his quiet classical side and surges together with string, organ, and the most delicate coda you ever did hear. It leads to the fury of Choir and the reconciliation of Die 4 You, making us think that if someone hasn’t asked Hadreas to score a film yet they’re missing one hell of a majestic trick.
We could go on and on, and certainly there are enough reasons for this not to be a perfect record. But it is an absolutely wonderful one – if Too Bright was about having to make a noise to be recognised, then No Shape is purely about the act of existing. In the world we live in, that in itself is an act of rebellion, but it’s the actual title of No Shape that really sticks the middle finger up to the hetero-normative prescription around us: we walk among you, in all our forms, confronting your eyes with beautiful images, filling your ears with moving sounds. Hadreas understands that, and this is just another bright addition to the patchwork quilt of society.