Solo project of Mike Hadreas, Perfume Genius has been prolific throughout the current decade and never fallen short of staying true to their songwriting footing. “No Shape,” their latest, isn’t earth shattering and doesn’t mark a dismissal from Hadreas’s glam-baroque pop (with a dash of heartfelt ballad) background, however, it’s a logical step forward and never falters in delivering entertaining, emotionally moving material.
The album opens with a great sampling of the dynamic range to come. We open with a tiny, twinkling piano line as Hadreas sings esoterically about how our true self is bound to come out eventually: “Even in hiding/Find it knows you.” As he rounds the corner of his chorus, a huge explosion of instruments and vocals soars to the moon and back. The album continuously bounces between soaring hugeness and subdued tenderness and right from the get-go Hadreas gives his listener a taste of both sides of the spectrum.
“Slip Away” follows with one of the best standalone tracks on the record. Percussive bass sounds open before Hadreas unleashes infectious catchiness with each passing lyric. The chorus flies in leaps and bounds with pounding drums, rattling cymbals, and some huge plucked melodic motions. The lyrics bleed empowerment, touching upon loving the way you want to love: “They’ll never break the shape we take/Baby let all them voices slip away.” It’s a true anthem and maintains all the momentum suggested in the introduction.
From here, the album operates in groups of songs a bit more. Ideas grow over handfuls of songs with ups in downs in energy and dynamics carrying over from track to track as well. Lyrically, “Just Like Love,” “Go Ahead,” and “Valley” continue the notion of “be yourself,” but hone in on feeling confident and effortless in public. First, Hadreas encourages a child to ignore those who judge him: “They’ll talk/Give them every reason/For child, you walk,” then “Go Ahead” takes a mission statement of ‘go ahead and judge I’m unbothered,’ before “Valley” wonders “How long must we live right/Before we don’t even have to try?”
These three tracks are all connected sonically by some slightly more subdued grooves—in comparison to the first pair of tracks—that don’t quite reach the balladic levels of later tracks like “Alan” or “Braid.” Hadreas generally works in pretty small cells with songwriting—most of his tracks don’t run much longer than three minutes—so, having three or four of them intertwined in theme and sonic pallet makes the album’s momentum rather effortless.
Later, some of Hadreas’s most breathtaking moments come when he places his voice out in space completely untethered. The final track, “Alan,” is the most straightforward example. His flying high vocals reach a blissful purity as he sings to his lover: “You need me/Rest easy/I’m here/How weird.” Elsewhere, Hadreas doesn’t completely let his listener in on his plan. “Valley” is has a nice little chugging guitar line, but all of the sudden the space is cleared for a pillow of strings (and organ?) with Hadreas crying out over the top. He’s got the delicacy to execute these floating moments and the various approaches he takes to them makes for a varying listening experience.
Admittedly there are a few tracks here and there that are less notable than others. “Choir” and “Die 4 U” are particularly left field lyrically, but the minimalism in the sonic material suggests that the lyrics should be the main focus. The result is a bit of stagnation, but luckily things pick back up a bit to finish the record strong.
A review of this record would also be incomplete without mention of the fantastic Weyes Blood feature. The song “Sides” takes up a thesis about the balance between alone time and letting one’s significant other into one’s world in times of trouble with Hadreas and Natalie Mering each sharing a verse. More than just adding her voice to the equation, Mering seems to take over the sonic fingerprint of the song as her voice comes into play, making for a complementary yet welcome change of pace. Perhaps Hadreas’s next record could look to recreate this a bit more often.
Yet again, Perfume Genius delivers with “No Shape.” It’s a sonic tour de force with biting lyrics and moments of tender heart-wrench provided solely by Hadreas’s voice. An occasional weak spot falls relatively unnoticed as the boundless momentum pushes energy forward from beginning to end.