It should come as no surprise to fans of Mike Hadreas, the man behind Perfume Genius, that the first single from his highly anticipated fourth album is the boldly ecstatic ‘Slip Away’. After a few years away, Hadreas’ return packed a mighty punch. Debuting a music video painted in lush pinks and peachy oranges it landed with a cathartic thud. And whilst a lot of buzzwords have hovered over No Shape ‘timid’ is surely not one of them. Hadreas is assured and as confident as ever on this record creating both anthemic stadium-sized music with softer, refined contemplations that muse on the complexities that arise from intimacy and self-doubt. In the face of the horrors coming out of Chechnya, the ecstatic and celebratory nature and gay-ness of the music video for ‘Slip Away’ is something of pure joy. With the camp qualities rivalling childhood fairy tales yet packing the wallop of something largely more substantial, Hadreas fuses a bond of pain, beauty, sadness but above all else defiance to mould No Shape.
Following on from 2014’s Too Bright, which noted a veritable shift in the projection of the sound of Perfume Genius, Hadreas is able to sonically translate light, wind and sun disrupting a dark room on album opener ‘Otherside’. Proving that No Shape’s form will similarly explore and unlock something greater than what lay before. The dark corners and angst of his previous record is still felt here yet that hostility has been translated into rebellious gumption. In the interim of releases it goes without saying that the tide of American politics has reared its ugly head. Yet, instead of wallowing Hadreas invokes a call to arms and offers something to rejoice and feel faith in, despite such turmoil.
Arguably the highlight of the album, ‘Slip Away’ sounds unfamiliar yet distinctly like a Perfume Genius record. The sentiment of self-empowerment which he has touched on previously (and quite spectacularly on ‘Queen’) is expanded on and shattered into a million pieces notably due to producer Blake Mills. Mills puts a match to the production setting the song alight. Its crescendo hitting like a horse charging through branches whipping each one out of its way. Singing that nothing will ‘break the shape we take’, Hadreas taps into a sound of marvellous redemption and catharsis for those kids who were picked on for being different and weird and gay and flamboyant and beautiful. His music now allowing that to be revelled in, indulged and embraced enthusiastically. Similarly, Hadreas’ lilting vocals on ‘Wreath’ hop like a rabbit in the springtime sewing imagery into the sounds of No Shape. Both tracks bringing joy and light to tricky—and oft explored—issues of empowerment and body image.
The latter half of the album heeds a similar tone, however, to previous works by Hadreas. On ‘Die 4 You’ he is seemingly touching on asphyxiation by a lover breathily singing ‘Each and every breath I spend/You are collecting’. And on ‘Sides’, Weyes Blood is a welcome feature adding feminine reverb to Hadreas’ perspective singing, ‘Don’t want to watch/The world we made break’. Noting the difficulty and complexity of love and partnered intimacy proves a mature step for the progression of No Shape which despite the beauty of its childlike innocence is better able to ground the vulnerability of Hadreas’ sentiment.
Answering the lofty expectations placed upon the follow up to a career-defining album, Hadreas retorts with blending a mixture of sounds. The album reeks of childhood indulgence yet there is quality to such an approach. The listener is treated to a banquet of sounds as instruments of strings, harps, drum, guitar and piano combine beautifully. From pure Kate Bush fantasy that explodes with the glory of Hounds of Love (1985) to the blues of a young PJ Harvey, there is a stark difference to the delicacy which categorised the sounds of his earlier albums Learning (2010) and Put Your Back N 2 It (2012). Yet, he retains his signature crooning and rebellious inclinations that propelled his career to where it stands today. And refrains from stumbling into muddled territory despite the scope Mills’ production takes. For saccharine charm without cloying pretence has become a fixture of Hadreas’ oeuvre. And like much of queer culture, his referential knowledge only works to the betterment of his music.
Following a string of artists dipping their toe into pop music, Perfume Genius is pulling it off successfully. The childlike first half of the album abounds in playfulness and the latter contemplates such whimsy, like a nursery rhyme sung to a child going to sleep after a long day. For the transcendent soundscape Hadreas propels on this record assuredly fulfils his yearning to ‘burn off every trace [and] hover with no shape’.