Stark, naked, bereft, even. Mike Hadreas’ back catalogue is a challenging and, at times, isolating listen. Known for his sparse, disquieting musical arrangements coupled with brutal, confessional honesty, Perfume Genius has, over the course of his three previous albums, constructed a sound that is often defined by its bleak, raw nature as well as its refusal to censor itself for the sake of mass consumption. On album number four, however, we find this bleakness interrupted, Hadreas in a more mellow frame of mind, far removed from the acid defiance of his 2014 breakout single ‘Queen’.
No Shape opens almost jubilantly with the euphoric crescendo of ‘Otherside’ before segueing into the urgent romance of lead single ‘Slip Away’, a track that sees Hadreas indulging in romantic fantasies of escape and freedom, his voice hopeful and reassuring, free of anxiety and self-loathing. The bitterness that seeped into much of Perfume Genius’s earlier tracks is nowhere to be found here, replaced by the distinct feeling that for the first time, Hadreas is actually OK, or at least somewhere thereabouts.
On ‘Valley’, we find Hadreas singing over a gentle acoustic guitar, on untypically relaxed, mellow form. But the lyrics betray an underlying disquiet, a dissatisfaction that lets us know that not everything is as peachy as the chilled guitar melody would have us believe. “I hear the sound of a million drums / With no beat / Violins with no melody / I’m sick with it,” Hadreas sighs, and from here the tone of the record begins to shift, the sounds becoming heavier, from the claustrophobic finale of ‘Wreath’ to the fraught strings of ‘Choir’ accompanied by Hadreas’ moody vocal swells.
‘Die 4 You’ shows Hadreas has lost none of his gutsy, unapologetic approach to songwriting, still keen to embrace taboos. Breathless and sensual, the track explores erotic asphyxiation as a metaphor for a relationship in which one member gives all of themselves, emotionally speaking, to the other. It’s this dark underbelly that marks No Shape as a Perfume Genius record, Hadreas’ flirtation with the bleakest elements of the human psyche in its quest for love and affection still as startling as ever.
But it’s ‘Alan’, the album’s closer, that offers us some reassurance. An ode to Hadreas’ long-term partner, it revolves around the repeated refrain of “I’m here, how weird,” as though Hadreas cannot quite believe the comfortable domesticity he has landed in, safe and secure, loved and cherished. On what is quite possibly his best record to date, an album characterised by poetry and bold musical flourishes, confident and consistently satisfying, Hadreas allows himself, however cautiously, to be OK. It’s taken a long time for him to get here, but finally, it seems, Perfume Genius has found his peace.