Album Review: Perfume Genius— No Shape (May 2017)

For nearly a decade, Mike Hadreas has been creating some of the most painstakingly personal music through the stage name Perfume Genius. The project started with barely more than a whisper and a few gentle presses on a keyboard but has since evolved to become more vociferous and bombastic in ways both small and large, both offstage and on. 

I remember when I bought his first two records, Learning (2010) and Put Your Back N 2 It (2012)—I would sit down with them late at night with a few candles around the room and my headphones plugged directly into the turntable. For many nights that first winter with them I would just sit there on the floor of my bedroom, alone, crying, and overcome with emotions. The fragility of which Mike sang these songs spoke directly to my soul which was also fragile from a youth growing up queer, misunderstood, and hurt by love (and lust). 

Music had always been an important facet of my life since I was a child but here I was at 25 years old, in the first few years of a more liberated sexuality, having a truly visceral reaction to an album. It was as if all of these years of insulating, hiding, shaming and ignoring my personal truths had instantaneously bubbled right to the surface and demanded that I fully acknowledge and reconcile my emotional state—Perfume Genius could mystically phrase an entire life's worth of queer experience in the smallest gesture and it was both overwhelming and blissfully cathartic.

These first two albums had centered quite a bit on personal pain, loss, and confusion but his subsequent work would slowly evolve to using these experiences to find and assert power. With the 2014 release of Too Bright, Hadreas had found a way to weave the fragility of his prior work into some of the most assertive tracks he has written to date, going from piano to the full grit of rock and roll and back at the snap of a finger. His vulnerability and versatility was able to shine like never before and it perfectly set the stage for what was to come.

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No Shape arrives in 2017 and asserts itself against the economic and political reality that queerness still carries—despite more significant cultural exposure and the official legalization of gay marriage in the United States, homelessness, a lack of appropriate healthcare, and anti-LGBT violence remain the most prominent forces facing the community. It was only one year prior that a man had walked into a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida—a heretofore "safe space" for queers and their allies—and shot and killed 49 people. Not only does the unapologetic assertiveness of Perfume Genius' latest effort resoundingly offer a retort, the space Hadreas and co. work to create for the community during their live performances is truly remarkable and unmatched.

The album begins with the glittering track, "Otherside," which could not be a more perfect track to showcase where Mike Hadreas has been and where he is going—it leads with a gentle piano and his soft vocals but just as quickly fully explodes and asserts a forceful presence. Listening to the track with headphones is enough to send chills down your spine but its full realization on the stage, amidst a crowd of other speechless adoring fans, as Mike slowly sashays out of the darkness and into the lights at peak tenacity is uniquely powerful.

Much of the album speaks to this moment—coming out of the darkness and vigorously declaring oneself with no thought or care to what others might think or feel. The lead single, "Slip Away," declares: "Oh love, they'll never break the shape we take // Oh, baby let all them voices slip away." ; while the equally careless track "Go Ahead" states: "What you think? // I don't remember asking."

Between these tracks is perhaps one of the most beautiful songs Mike Hadreas has written thus far—"Just Like Love." Inspired by the viral video of a young boy flamboyantly dancing for his mother who can be heard cheering and lovingly encouraging him as she records, the track becomes a strong affirmation of those feminine characteristics which all boys should be allowed to possess and explore. It recalls (and defiantly denounces) the 2008 tragedy of Lawrence King who, at the tender age of 15, was shot twice and killed by a classmate at his Oxnard, California middle school for wearing women's accessories and clothing. 

Sleeve, cut just off the shoulder
You are christening the shape
They’ll talk
Give them every reason
For child, you walk
Just like love

Slick, sheen so bright it’s a bother
You are cultivating grace
They’re rough
Smother them with velvet
For child, you walk
Just like love

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Perhaps the most indicative track of the power, dynamism and vulnerability of Hadreas is the second released single, “Die 4 You.”  This track showcases a technique and approach to music that was blatantly articulated in the previous release, Too Bright, and finds its full realization here—namely the ability to not only write poetic material and match it to beautiful music but to understand the texture and tone that each individual word/phrase carries, the musicality that must accompany it, and the ability to seamlessly switch between them even within a single track. Lyrically “Die 4 You” pertains to the suffocating nature of falling in love with someone and for this we vocally hear Hadreas experiment with breathing techniques that deliver this emotional state rather exquisitely. 

Not only does No Shape (as album and live performance) offer an unflinching, aggressive presence, it provides an intricacy and heartfelt tribute to queer sensibilities surrounding identity, power, and love. Perhaps during these tough times, there could be no better offering to the LGBT+ community to find solace, grace, and reassurance in ones full being than in the declarative and proud nature of Perfume Genius. 

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Other notable tracks on the album include: “Valley,” “Wreath,” “Braid,” and “Alan.”