Conrad Duncan explores Perfume Genius’ impressive yet messy new album

Written by Conrad Duncan
Images by Pitchfork

No Shape is best heard through headphones, where its subtle instrumental quirks and textures are able to come to the foreground, but you’ll have to be careful the first time you listen to it. On ‘Otherside’, Mike Hadreas begins by performing a hushed piano ballad that is typical of his early work as Perfume Genius. Then, after a minute of business as usual, the song erupts with a burst of synths and vocals that propel it upwards. It’s a moment of awe-inspiring beauty, but if you’re not cautious with setting the volume, that moment might mean you’ll be in need of some new ear drums afterwards, which would be great shame. Firstly, because that would undoubtedly be incredibly inconvenient for you and secondly, it would be a shame that you’d miss out on the rest of No Shape.

Back on 2014’s Too Bright, Perfume Genius took a sharp left turn away from the introspective ballads of his early records towards a sound that incorporated elements of glam rock and industrial synth rock. The result was a surprising and often astounding record that explored Hadreas’ sexuality with a more confrontational tone and one that earned him widespread critical acclaim and an enhanced media profile. On No Shape, he continues to explore that topic, alongside his troubled relationship with his own body, but this time he does it with a more welcoming tone. Backed with bright instrumentals, inspired by Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love and Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, Hadreas focuses on transcendence, whether through submission, marital bliss, or the desire to escape the limits of one’s body, to make a record that is easily his most accessible without softening his eccentricities. It’s also his longest, at a comparatively epic 43 minutes, and his most musically diverse.

No Shape goes out of its way to explore as many territories as possible without completely settling on one in particular

If Perfume Genius’ first two records could have been criticised for sticking too closely to one style, his work since 2014 could be faulted just as easily for jumping too eagerly between different genres. No Shape finds time to include stadium-sized anthems, like ‘Slip Away’, and sensual slow jams, alongside his usual piano ballads which are well-represented with the achingly beautiful ‘Braid’ and ‘Alan’. At times the changes of pace can feel unnecessary as musical ideas get introduced suddenly and then forgotten about, most clearly with the frightening strings of ‘Choir’. These detours mean that No Shape is Perfume Genius’ most unfocused album yet, and on its second half, Hadreas moves between different ideas without settling on any for long enough to build momentum. If it wasn’t for the generally high quality of the material and the show-stopping closer, it would be tempting to say that the album runs out of steam after a brilliant first half. However, Hadreas’ cryptic lyrics and a wealth of inventive details in the instrumentals help to keep things interesting.

After perfecting his early sound on 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It, Too Bright was a reinvention that gave Perfume Genius a new lease of life by expanding the possibilities of the project. In light of that success, No Shape goes out of its way to explore as many territories as possible without completely settling on one in particular. It makes for a great collection of songs but as an album it’s his least cohesive work by far. Hadreas’ desire to transcend his current limitations are reflected in the album’s music. The songs on No Shape are his most ambitious and lavishly produced, incorporating string sections and synths on most tracks, and once again they suggest that there’s more to Perfume Genius than what we’d previously thought he was capable of. All of this means that while No Shape is the messiest album in Perfume Genius’ career so far, it’s also another worthy entry in an impressive career.