Perfume Genius: No Shape review – scents and a new sensibility

Tortured soul Mike Hadreas takes a huge leap forward on his triumphant, shape-shifting fourth LP

As unique selling points go, “self-acceptance” is perhaps not the sexiest peg upon which to market a fourth album. If you’re a fan of Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, you’ll have grown accustomed to a level of high drama, to witness statements of longing, fear and self-loathing. Hadreas’s reputation has been made on candour in the face of trauma, of copious self-medication and a subtext of body horror.

These tremulous confessionals have been borne along on piano treatments (albums one and two) or increasingly confident palettes, as on 2014’s angrier Too Bright, where an extrovert tune called Queen declared no family was safe when Hadreas sashayed their way.

No Shape, however, is a different beast again, one in which the light is no longer at the end of a nightmarish tunnel. As recent interviews tell it, Hadreas is in a far less dysfunctional place than where he started from, and the expurgation phase of his work has turned into something more evolved. The final song on No Shape, Alan, is dedicated to Hadreas’s life partner and to the little epiphanies of their shared existence. “Did you notice, we sleep through the night?” croons Hadreas, with the wonderment of someone for whom circadian rhythms have long seemed alien dance moves. “How long do we have to live right before we don’t even have to try?” he mulls on Valley, before adding a jaunty “wah, wah, wah”.

If Hadreas has the luxury to “cultivate grace” (as Just Like Love puts it) to the strains of triumphant maximalism, that’s not to say No Shape lacks sucker punches; far from it. At the 1.10 mark, the rug is pulled out from under the album’s opening twinkling lullaby, Otherside. It’s as though Hadreas has stamped on an effects pedal labelled “Valkyries arrive” and producer Blake Mills over-ordered for good measure.

Watch the video for Perfume Genius’s Slip Away.

A rococo panic attack called Choir, meanwhile, is a spoken word track choked out fearfully against a giddy background of scything church music. “It’s weird here,” croaks Hadreas, and you can only agree, celebrating another huge leap forward in tone, texture and genre on an album that runs the gamut from Sufjan Stevens-style orchestral art pop to retro-futurist R&B fantasias (the amazing Go Ahead), from running water to snake rattles.

The “holy shit” factor of Perfume Genius has just shifted locus, then, from Hadreas’s reportage to his art as a whole. On Perfume Genius’s debut, Learning, we had Mr Peterson, a song in which Hadreas’s teacher takes advantage of him and then jumps off a building. Here, we have Hadreas’s desire to transcend his body and self – the no shape of the title – and glorious, inventive, shape-shifting music to match.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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