Perfume Genius and the redemptive spirit of No Shape

Perfume Genius - No ShapeIn the music video for “Slip Away”, the first single taken from the new Perfume Genius album, Mike Hadreas runs through a slideshow of soft-focus fantasies, away from a cast of hapless villains, towards an implied happy ending. Like a dream, the detail is somehow both blurred and crudely exaggerated; the antagonists’ faces are painted in caricature, and overcome by Hadreas dashing through the exploding set, hand in hand with his fairytale bride. Most of all, for an artist who dealt nothing but shade on 2014’s comeback “Queen” – all vicious contours and slicked-back hair, lips frozen in a permanent sneer at American heteronormativity – “Slip Away” presents a palette that is warm, dynamic, and deliriously playful. It’s the story of No Shape.

“When you are a drug addict and alcoholic, you function in crisis mode all the time,” Alan Wyffels explains. As Hadreas’ partner and prime collaborator in Perfume Genius, he is painfully aware of the journey traced through the 35-year-old’s discography. “Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It was Mike processing those things. Too Bright was a lot of anger. And this album is like, okay, we’re on the other side.” As if to render the metaphor explicit, the new record opens with “Otherside”, setting its stall out as a classic Perfume Genius dirge – in the best, most traditional sense of the word – before detonating a glitter bomb of harp and synth textures, all set off by a single drum blast. Suddenly the world of No Shape is utterly capricious, subject to change at any moment.

It’s a trick reproduced on a few tracks here, notably across a mid-album experimental patch. “Choir” is propulsed by a rapid-fire violin motif, a suitably dramatic backdrop for Hadreas’ Jamie Stewart impression. Conversely, “Die 4 You” sounds more like Sade, and it’s only when the music catches up with a lounge jazz beat that you notice how accomplished Hadreas’ soulful delivery has become. (Supposedly it’s about the perils of auto-erotic asphyxiation, of course.) “Sides”, assisted by Weyes Blood, is built around a sleazy guitar riff that coruscates and bends around the track; like his duet with Christine and the Queens, it shows he's also a remarkably versatile collaborator these days.

Where his last album tested the waters with dissonance and screams, No Shape’s bold steps are mostly taken towards a diva aesthetic, wrapped up in an exquisite, drunken sense of the romantic. It’s an alluring ideology, especially to those who would die to bridge a gap between ideal love and the faults of the body. “A lot of the album is about my being into not having a body, the idea of transcending it,” Hadreas recently told an interviewer. “I like the idea of something taking a different shape than the one I feel like I’m stuck with.” In this sense, the album’s centrepiece is undeniably “Wreath”, a musical and thematic sequel to “Slip Away”, and hymn to that posthumanist fantasy: “Burn off every trace, I wanna hover with no shape, I wanna feel the days go by, not stack up…”

But beyond all that, No Shape offers a real sense that Hadreas has found a degree of peace. The album closes with "Alan", a redemptive hymn to the life he's charted out with his partner. "Did you notice we sleep through the night?" he begins. "Did you notice, babe, everything's alright?" For all the horror that has been documented across four Perfume Genius albums - the incest, assault, suicide, rape, homophobia - there's a quiver in his voice delivering that last line that suggests stability might be his most terrifying confrontation yet. Perhaps at last, wide-eyed and clean, Perfume Genius has made a record that finds him ready to live, not just survive.

Release: 5th May 2017, Matador Records


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