Perfume Genius: No Shape review – confident and melodic, with a rich seam of strange

True to turbulent form, Mike Hadreas jams together moments of euphoric pop beauty with disruptive ugliness in an album of uniformly fantastic tunes

“I’m here,” sings Mike Hadreas on the final track of No Shape, the unpromisingly titled Alan. “How weird.” It’s presumably a reference to the change in his personal circumstances. By anyone’s standards, the 35-year-old singer-songwriter has lived a turbulent life: a horrendous-sounding adolescence marked by prejudice and violence – he was sent death threats at school and left his hometown of Seattle after being hospitalised in a homophobic attack – family dysfunction, alcoholism and drug addiction, recovery and relapses. Today, however, he finds himself sober and settled: the Alan of the song’s title is his partner and musical collaborator Alan Wyffels.

But it could equally apply to his career path as Perfume Genius. His 2010 debut album Learning and its successor, 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It were stark, harrowing, inward-looking and filled with despair, their lyrics clearly drawn from experience. His initial signature sound – lo-fi recordings of his voice quivering over a piano audibly in need of tuning – occasionally recalled the work of Daniel Johnson. It was critically acclaimed and clearly the stuff of which small, rabid cult followings and only-you-understand-me fan mail are made.

But in recent years, his music has inched closer to the mainstream. No Shape’s predecessor, Too Bright, attracted wider attention with the astonishing Queen, a single expansive and anthemic in a way that nothing Hadreas had previously released had been, the introverted despair replaced by defiant, screw-you fury: “No family is safe when I sashay.” Today, instead of posing for photographers topless and bruised, Hadreas finds himself modelling a $5,200 Gucci tailcoat in the pages of fashion magazine W. Where once he incurred a ridiculous ban from YouTube for releasing a video featuring the late Arpad Miklos – star of films including Anal Cockpit, Crotch Rocket and CSI: Cock Scene Investigators – his music now appears in the background as fine-boned models look wistful in an advert for Prada’s latest fragrance.

And rather than despair, dysfunction and fury, No Shape is an album that depicts a world in which, as he puts it elsewhere on Alan, “everything’s all right”. It’s a point made explicit from the start. Opener Otherside begins with the familiar sound of Hadreas’s mournful voice and delicate piano: a minute in, it’s overwhelmed by a glorious explosion of electronics. It sounds euphoric, rapturous – not adjectives readily associated with Perfume Genius’s previous work – as does the song that follows. Single Slip Away is a wide-eyed love song, its magnificent pop chorus bursting into life over a pounding rhythm track. How weird.

Or perhaps not. For one thing, even at his bleakest, Hadreas has always had a way with melody, using it to make the most unbearable subject matter somehow palatable. His debut single Mr Peterson married an exceptionally jaunty tune to a lyric about a teacher sexually exploiting a pupil before killing himself: long before Prada commissioned him to cover Elvis’s Can’t Help Falling in Love, the kind of people whose job it is to search out folksy alt-rock for use in commercials seized upon a song called Dark Parts, apparently unaware that the song they were using to flog cars was about Hadreas’s mother being sexually abused. His melodic facility is much in evidence here: amid the acoustic guitars and pizzicato strings of Valley, during the small-hours ballads Braid and Every Night, illuminated by Weyes Blood’s fantastic guest vocal on the warped 80s pop of Sides.

In fact, the tunes are so uniformly fantastic that it’s easy to overlook the rich seam of strangeness that runs through the album’s sound. Hadreas has said that one of No Shape’s touchstones is Talk Talk’s 1988 album Spirit of Eden and it certainly shares that album’s willingness to jam moments of spectral beauty together with disruptive ugliness: the ungainly, heaving rhythm behind Go Ahead, the layer of electronic noise that adds an edge-of-panic quality to Wreath, the agitated string arrangement on Choir.

If No Shape is a less straightforward pop album than it first appears, then something similar is true of the lyrics. It certainly maps out a more positive emotional territory than its predecessors, but even Hadreas’s expressions of undying fealty come with an air of prickling disquiet. On the face of it, Die 4 You is a straightforward R&B-influenced slow jam: you could imagine Drake or the Weeknd blithely calling a song something like that. But Hadreas literally seems to be singing about his willingness to let his partner strangle him. Wreath, meanwhile, sets the happy prospect of a lifelong relationship against the grim, inevitable shadow of old age and death, and Valley is haunted by the thought that sorting your life out doesn’t necessarily make it easier: “How long do we have to live right, before we don’t even have to try?”

But for all the anxiety and neuroses on display, there’s also a powerful confidence. “What do you think?” he asks on Go Ahead. “I don’t remember asking you.” You can see why Andreas might feel that way. No Shape sounds like a unique talent coming into full bloom. However weird it may seem, he’s here.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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