Release Date: May 5, 2017
Record label: Matador
An explosive quiet-loud moment, pounding drums and love-focused lyrics heralded the fourth album by Mike Hadreas, the singer/songwriter who goes by Perfume Genius. Released ahead of the record, the effusive single Slip Away has a distinctive pop dimension and the triumphant energy of a festival-sized barnstormer. But just as its lyrics allude to queerness and notions of social acceptance, the rest of No Shape refuses to take a straight path through pop formula.
Perfume Genius’ last album - his 2014 release ‘Too Bright’ - was arguably the moment (along with a little old guest spot on Christine and The Queens’ debut album) that transformed Mike Hadreas from a fringe outlier, to a trailblazing leader. Always one to do the opposite of what you’d expect, it’s perhaps no major shock that for his fourth album, Perfume Genius chooses to grow even more musically overblown, while also shifting away from the hater-baiting defiance of his sashaying tour de force, ‘Queen’. Instead, ‘No Shape’ is a more inward-gazing masterclass in kitschy indulgence and raw honesty alike; a bold, brash record that veers from shrieking gusts of operatic frenzy to crackling emotion, without batting an eyelid.
Only Perfume Genius could conjure a fairy tale from these troubling times. No Shape documents deep lows and the most glittering of highs; harsh and lush in equal brush strokes, Mike Hadreas' fourth album celebrates the raw strength it can take to break free and find a new normality. The Seattle musician is beloved for his radical, intimate documentation of depression, drug abuse and enduring homophobia, and his three previous albums grew from spectral vulnerability into powerful, confrontational frustration.
Mike Hadreas' fourth album under his Perfume Genius moniker is his most generous yet, in both runtime and open-heartedness. It marks the latest bold step in an artist's evolution from modest beginnings in the world of lo-fi, intensely personal songwriting to his current standing as a creator of grandly ambitious, unapologetically kitsch art-pop. It also completes an emotional journey from a place of isolated despair to unexpected contentment.
"Don't hold back, I want to break free, 'cause it's singing through your body," Mike Hadreas urges on lead single "Slip Away". There's a tension in the tracks bubbling refrains, a sense of trepidation that creeps assuredly over the surface. But when Hadreas sings it's not of that - it's of the hope and resolution that shimmers within. "They'll never break the shape we take," he affirms, "baby, let all them voices slip away." As the song erupts into relentless percussion and thunderous echoes, a piece of that courage starts to set in.
From ancient Lesbos to '60s SoHo, drag balls to Paradise Garage, queer havens aren't just shelters created in opposition to the wider world, but hives of imagination and creativity where alternate realities reign, even if they sometimes dissolve at dawn. Perfume Genius ' fourth album, No Shape , is one of them. On 2014's Too Bright , Mike Hadreas laid down the law when he commanded, "No family is safe when I sashay," on the iconic "Queen." But this time, he's scarcely interested in using his steely blue gaze to challenge bigots.
Perfume Genius refines this loud-quiet on No Shape and continues his fascination with disruption (a Giant materializes to break up several songs here). All of this is introduced with a technique far removed from early recordings, but one that was lurking in the emotional intensity of those songs, here unveiled: volume. No Shape begins the way Perfume Genius albums have always begun, with a softly assured piano melody and the strangely sweet voice that belongs to Hadreas (and sometimes belongs to an angel or a devil, and to us listening, who take it into our own throats to sing along, “Just like love”).
Trauma and its transformative powers have been at the heart of Perfume Genius' music since the beginning, and in its own way, No Shape is no exception. On early albums like Learning, it felt like Mike Hadreas had to fight through the pain to get out his hushed confessions, while the fierce Too Bright brought his anger to the surface. No Shape finds Hadreas moving toward acceptance, allowing his music to bloom and grow.
It's fair to say that Mike Hadreas - aka Perfume Genius - isn't familiar with subtlety. He's high drama, heart proffering and emotion-soaked to his core. Listening to his previous three records is akin to going to an intimate spoken word night - those ones where you're practically sitting on the performer and they eyeball you and splatter you with flecks of spit as their deepest thoughts come tumbling out all over you.
Perfume Genius's fourth album is somewhat harder to classify than his previous efforts. Whereas his first two records -- Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It -- were steeped in lush piano balladry and 2014's Too Bright was very much in the key of dirty, defiant glam, No Shape draws from an array of musical styles: pop, soul, goth and glam rock are all encompassed. What all Perfume Genius --aka Mike Hadrias-- records do have in common is their raw confessional nature, their willingness to lay bare personal demons and their unapologetic queerness.
A s 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.
Mike Hadreas has never been one to mince words. So, in naming the first track on his latest album as Perfume Genius, "Otherside," he's letting us know that's he's moving on from the deep confessionals and angry jabs about past sins that typified his previous releases. What the title doesn't reveal, though, is the sonic transformation he's undergone as well; No Shape, his fourth and most immediate album, embraces the lush orchestration that he's previously only teased. The shifting lyrical perspectives aren't as jarring as they might seem.
"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.
Happiness never sounded as haunting as it does on the new Perfume Genius record, No Shape. Everything, including contentment, comes at a cost, and those emotional debts will leave their mark. There are simultaneous moments of pure beauty and pain, as there have been throughout Perfume Genius' work. Only now perhaps the songs don't search for beauty in suffering, but in vitality despite it.
Placing Mike Hadreas' Perfume Genius of today alongside the 2010 guise that released his debut Learning is like comparing Hamburg Beatles to LSD Beatles. While his fourth record is still a thing of beauty, it's a fractal work that splinters off into bursts of grandiose noise and multi-layered, multi-instrumental wonder; you'd describe it as comfortably at the opposite end of the musical spectrum to early songs like Lookout, Lookout and No Tear. One constant is the Hadreas croon, a bashful but bold yelp that somehow defines him above all the glitter.
Thematically and lyrically, Perfume Genius' fourth album, No Shape , lands right away. Mike Hadreas, who has been making music as Perfume Genius since 2008, has always used gorgeous imagery to grapple with the personal and political complexities of being a queer artist, most notably on his acclaimed 2014 album, Too Bright . No Shape is a powerful continuation and evolution of those themes, with each song clearly carrying an undercurrent of elegant but unwavering rebellion.
Mike Hadreas' goth-glam songs of longing uncoil like someone who's waited a long goddamn time for things to go right; when they finally rise to a crescendo, the release is thrillingly palpable. They do this often on his fourth Perfume Genius LP, which by his standards feels startlingly optimistic, with pop and rock tropes queered into dreamlike scenarios. "Go Ahead" conjures "Kiss"-era Prince and mid-Sixties Dionne Warwick ("say a little prayer for me/Baby") over dyspeptic electro-funk.
Beginning with the fragile woundedness of his 2010 debut Learning, Mike Hadreas’s music as Perfume Genius has been unrepentantly queer from the start. Even so, the release of his third effort Too Bright nearly three years ago marked a turning point for the project, trading in the subtle transgression of his previous albums for a more overtly defiant sound, particularly in the case of the glam rock opus “Queen”. While No Shape marks Perfume Genius’s fourth album overall, it’s hard not to think of it as a sophomore album of sorts, a follow-up to the work that brought him a spot of newfound attention and recognition.
From the quiet bedroom recordings on his debut Learning to the subtle ballads on Put Your Back N 2 It to the pop swagger on Too Bright, the music Mike Hadreas creates as Perfume Genius has gotten bigger and bolder with every album. For his fourth album, No Shape, Hadreas continues his impressive streak with another record that retains his unique voice while incorporating new sounds and ambitions. Perfume Genius has always explored the queer experience, especially the traumas on the path to embracing one’s identity.
A weekly look at must-hear music from The Times' pop staff. This week's picks include the exquisite, adventurous pop of Perfume Genius, the fiery Americana of Pokey LaFarge and more. Perfume Genius, "No Shape" (Matador). On his breathtaking fourth studio album, "No Shape," Mike Hadreas, who performs as Perfume Genius, conveys such a wide breadth of emotion that it's hard to know whether to shower him with rose petals, fetch him a cocktail or load him onto a gurney.
Did we ever settle on a definition of "chamber pop," the genre that, for a minute, defined any indie band who were friends with a violinist? Arcade Fire aren't chamber pop anymore. ANOHNI moved on with her life. Beirut is a country. But in 2017, chamber pop seems like as good a phrase as any to describe Mike Hadreas' new album as Perfume Genius, the weird, dense No Shape .
The last seven years have seen Perfume Genius (real name Mike Hadreas) steadily solidify himself as one of the most distinctive and emotive songwriters of his generation. From the lo-fi confessions of debut 'Learning' to the more expansive sounds present on last effort 'Too Bright', the Seattle native has bravely covered themes of domestic abuse, suicide, and the very real dangers facing the LGBTQ community via some of the most fragile tunes going. Key to Hadreas' appeal is his ability to sing a refrigerator manual and probably bring you to tears.