No Shape is seeking transcendence beyond humanity.
We’ve been lucky enough to see the stunning metamorphosis of Perfume Genius in only four albums. Mike Hadreas’ debut, Learning, was a delicate thing that dealt with the turmoil of abuse with sickly-sweet beauty. Put Your Back N 2 It was an expansion, exploring past tortures with grander colors. 2014’s Too Bright had Hadreas bursting into glam-rock fire, daring the world around him to attack again. For most, Too Bright would have been the logical conclusion to the narrative arc, for Hadreas it was another beginning. If Too Bright was the final acceptance of a fragile, queer body, No Shape is seeking transcendence beyond humanity.
Like Frank Ocean’s Blond(e), No Shape recasts pop tradition with startling new textures. While Ocean weaved together white western music into a story about queer, black America, Hadreas focuses his sounds on the oddballs that topped charts despite their strangeness. Ocean’s muses were Paul McCartney and the Carpenters, Hadreas worships Kate Bush, Björk, Prince and Talk Talk. That’s all fairly obvious from the surface, with Hadreas even quoting Bush’s “Running Up that Hill” on album standout “Wreath,” and the music takes daring steps, warping possible pop hits into hallucinatory experiences.
The production for most of the album certainly would make Björk proud, with instruments crashing into each other, without regard for genre restrictions. The hues are either muted or blindingly bright. Hadreas aims for the hushed or the explosive, nothing in between. Opener “Otherside” presents this ideal from the outset. A loping piano line joins Hadreas’ mewling for the first minute or so, before a glorious cacophony of sound utterly breaks the song into heavenly light. It’s damn near heart-stopping and a signal of intent from Hadreas. Much of No Shape works nearly on a dubstep-drop logic, with slow builds into shivering moments of euphoria. But to call these piercing seconds “drops” would undermine how spellbinding they can be: they’re elevations.
And like his influences, Hadreas’ musical ecstasy underlines his lyrical performance. No Shape, from the title down, obsesses with evolving beyond physical limitations, whether through personal growth, love or music. Though the message is more universal, it can’t be co-opted by any “All Lives Matter” bullshit. This is distinctly an album dealing with dysphoria and, more importantly, a deeply personal album for Hadreas. He’s been open about his struggles with the horrifically painful Crohn’s disease, and No Shape gives him the space to sing in a world without chronic illness. His escape comes in the form of massively romantic movements. No Shape can sound like a modern opera at times, it’s near impossible to avoid imagining a chorus of perfectly aligned dancers swaying to the swooning strings of “Just Like Love” or the fiery piano solo that closes “Slip Away.”
Hadreas’ wont to make every emotion heightened brings him to some deeply experimental places. Even on the strangest moments of Too Bright, most of the music followed an internal logic. But Hadreas has gone all-in on pathos for No Shape, leading him to transfixing weirdness. “Die 4 You” and “Run Me Through” are lost classics from Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden era, revealing that Hadreas’ more hushed moments can be filled with pulsing tension. It’s a wonderful change of pace from his usually brittle and somber piano ballads, here they’re filled with steel. “Choir” is a hypnotizing piece of swirling violins and Hadreas’ nearly speak-singing visions of his body betraying him. It sounds like one of Max Richter’s more haunting works, and fits perfectly with Hadreas’ struggles to overcome his body’s own shortcomings.
“Choir” is all the more jarring for the utopian moments that Hadreas finds. The Synth-pop biting “Just Like Love” has Hadreas and his lover descending into a dream, intoxicated by each others’ touch. The explosive “Slip Away” is an early statement of Hadreas taking a form beyond his body; when he sings the title, it applies to the weary world letting him escape gravity and his own shape reforming into something exhilarating. When Weyes Blood shows up for a powerful vocal spot on “Sides,” she echoes Hadreas’ wishes for health: “Don’t want to watch the world we made break.”
For all the bombast, No Shape’s most touching moments are also its smallest. Just before the thrilling “Wreath” rushes in, Hadreas delivers the bouncing, downtempo “Valley.” For most of the song, clicking guitars and baroque violins are the only things to join Hadreas’ powerful vocals. Over the course of the interview cycle for No Shape, it’s seemed like Hadreas has a stable life. He’s sober, has a dog and seems completely in love with his partner, Alan, who plays throughout the album. “Valley” has him contemplating how surreal it is to find a normal life. “I’m sick with it,” he admits, looking over past regrets. But the chorus plays with the sense of sudden calmness falling into his life. “How long must we live right/ Before we don’t even have to try,” he sings. It’s simultaneously an admission that everything might go wrong at any moment, but also seeing the surprising thrill of a life filled with love and tranquility.
Closer “Alan” expands on these ideas in a truly sublime fashion. “Did you notice we sleep through the night?/ Did you notice, babe, everything’s alright?” Hadreas whispers to his love, in rapturous wonder that both of them have found happiness. “I’m here/ How weird,” he cries as violins and pianos swirl into darkness. It’s Neutral Milk Hotel’s “How strange it is to be anything at all” both blown up and made more intimate. Hadreas spends nearly all of No Shape seeing his spirit ascending beyond his mortal body, but, in the final moments, it’s just him and Alan, cuddling in bed. It’s there that Hadreas finds transcendence—in the arms of his partner.