To live an openly queer life is an act that requires imagination. You need it to envision a life that is explicitly outside (if not openly condemned by) what society has dictated for you. You need it to create a space in which you can thrive, be it as simple as a stable home or as dramatic as a dancefloor. And most of all, you need it to preserve hope that things will indeed get better some day. On his new album No Shape, Perfume Genius creates---both literally and figuratively---a metaphysical space in which the queer lifestyle fully blossoms through the power of imagination.
It is a quality that Perfume Genius, alias Mike Hadreas, first exhibited on his breakthrough album Too Bright, released to wide acclaim in 2014. It built on the deeply affecting, piano-driven work of his first two full-lengths and introduced a few crucial elements: namely, some shiny synthesizers and a newfound ability to create unstoppable pop hooks. The album's lead single "Queen" is already something of a gay anthem as iconic as the classics, thanks to bits of lyrical genius like "No family is safe when I sashay."
The result was a record that inhabited a space quite unlike anything Hadreas, or anyone else for that matter, had ever created before. For every polished pop ballad like "Queen" or "Fool" there was an unsettling ambient track like "I'm a Mother." Razor-sharp electro-synth explorations were immediately followed by a minimalist cabaret number, and all within minutes of each other. In his artistic evolution, Too Bright was a highwater mark for Perfume Genius, laying bare both his talents and influences and stitching them together in such a way that transformed their differences, plain for all to hear, into strengths.
In that respect, No Shape is the utter opposite; a complete 180 degree shift. Where Too Bright created friction from the interplay of its elements, No Shape is an immersive, astonishingly cohesive whole, functioning more as a 43-minute symphony than a collection of 13 individual songs. The entire record sounds submerged, not in a way that implies lo-fi quality but in the sense that every single moment of the album feels tightly contained, constantly on the verge of collapse or explosion from a seismic outside force.
The inherent joy in this album comes from the moments in which the music does just that---collapse and explode simultaneously. And it doesn't take long to find; this happens on both the first and the second track of the album repeatedly, to an ever-increasing level of joyousness. Opening song "Otherside" gives you just over a minute of Hadreas' controlled cooing before a volcanic eruption of cosmic glitter occurs, a moment that is truly jaw-dropping.
Lead single "Slip Away," the second track, pulls off a similar feat, but the expulsion of energy that propels the chorus works not as a jarring surprise but in service of magnifying the triumphant melody. And though that all may seem a bit too epic of a description for a less than three-minute song, it pales in comparison the actual lyrics. "Don't look back, I want to break free / If you'll never see 'em coming / You'll never have to hide," Hadreas calls as the production around him feels likely to split apart at any given moment.
Therein lies another one of the more interesting departures in No Shape that separates it from the rest of the Perfume Genius catalogue. It is remarkably fragile; even more so than his sparsely laden early work. This is no special feat in itself, but Hadreas has somehow conjured his most vulnerable, heart-on-his-sleeve work yet by creating the most bombastic, decadent instrumentation he has ever attempted. And where these two divergent tones would have been placed at odds of one another on Too Bright, here they are fused into one, finding strength in fragility as if he has created a suit of armor made of glass.
The album is full of such moments of crystalline delicacy, where simple admissions of love are transformed into grandiose manifestos of feeling, writ on the largest scale possible with ornate precision. "Choir" offers a sprint of strings laden beneath a spoken word that is both whisper and yell, "Sides" sees Hadreas duet with rising artist Weyes Blood to admonish the heartbreak of a lover gone "idle and empty-eyed" and "Wreath" introduces earthy, Prince-like guitars even as he longs to shed his mortal coil and "hover with no shape."
And in achieving this fragility that courses through every second of this record, Hadreas has inevitably created a work that, in many ways, runs as a profound parallel to the queer experience. Part of the beauty of queer love lies in its delicacy, in the fact that it burns so incredibly bright because it can be extinguished at any moment. For too many, their life and loves are a fantasy, vulnerable to utter desolation at a moment's notice. Hadreas knows this. It is why this music is as stupendously forceful as it is, and why in "Slip Away" he reminds us "If you'll never see 'em coming / You'll never have to hide."
No Shape closes with a track titled "Alan," so named for Hadreas' frequent musical collaborator and boyfriend of eight years. "You need me, rest easy" he sings gracefully, before pausing to reflect, "I'm here, how weird." All love is fantasy, but queer love is a fantasy ready to be shattered at any moment. It is weird indeed, but as Perfume Genius' latest shows, it is ravishingly beautiful.
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