On his remarkable album, 2014’s No Bright, Mike Hadreas unveiled a different side to Perfume Genius. He was vulnerable, assertive, commanding, and proud, and No Bright was the pinnacle of his canon. It was simultaneously a sermon and an enlightening for all willing to hear his message. Three years later, Hadreas has returned with a new record that still requires an audience but its arena is the theater. His fourth album, No Shape, is a celebration of one’s existence disguised as an esoteric-pop opera.
Throughout this concept album, Hadreas takes us on a journey that peers through the eyes of the protagonist (often Hadreas himself), of his lover, and that of God. In most cases, what we witness is something exhilarating and monumental. The opener, “Otherwise”, is a beautiful introduction to this spectacle. It commences expectantly with Hadreas’ delicate piano work and his wonderful voice, but then it does the unexpected – it bursts with a bright radiance like fireworks filing the darken sky. It is joy, jubilation, and ecstasy all in one.
The drama begins to unfold on “Slip Away”, which continues the more expansive, technicolor approach of the opener. Hadreas’ trademark piano still is present, but waves of electronic, percussion, and guitar riffs filter the air to give the song a cinematic and dramatic quality. As the song escalates, Hadreas reminds us that love can exist in various forms. “Love will never break the shape we take”, Hadreas repeats as the instrumentation around his voice escalates towards its dramatic finale.
Like in all great productions, a moment of tranquility arrives, which in this case is the swooning “Just Like Love”. Hadreas’ voice takes on a blissful quality, swirling between the dramatic strokes of the complementary strings. A sense of confrontation percolates on the ultra-cool “Go Ahead”, which echoes Dirty Minds-era Prince with its dark, funk approach. The mood perfectly complements Hadreas’ edgier voice, as he challenges his opponent to “go ahead and try” to take away what he has and who he is.
The production’s highlight comes in the form of “Wreath”, which is the spectacle within the spectacle. The levitating and interspersed harmonies are almost choral in nature, as if Hadreas has brought has back into the church. Is he seeking redemption, saying goodbye to someone or something within, or saying one last prayer before he commences a new chapter in his life? Whatever it may be, there is optimism, hope, and peace in his voice, as he sings:
Burn off every trace
I want to hover with no shape
I want to feel the days go by
Not stack up
Climbing up that hill
I’m going to peel off every weight
Until my body gives away
And shuts up.
The mesmerizing “Choir” is the point in the opera where everything seems lost and the end may be near. The instrumentation is startlingly beautiful, as the symphony behind Hadreas spins a brooding, suspenseful soundscape that is only heard on the most memorable soundtrack. Hadreas’ voice, meanwhile, takes on a dual complexion, as if two beings are battling for control of the character in question’s body and soul. “Quiet is threatened, and voices I only feel / Something tightens / If frightened, hold still”, he warns us before succumbing to his fate.
As one drama ends, another one begins with the R&B-tinged “Die 4 You”. This sultry number blends the seductiveness of Sade and Cigarettes After Sex with the innovative tones of Frank Ocean. In other words, it is a love song like no other. It is sexy and breathtaking, yet a tentativeness trickles under the surface as if the love may not be reciprocated. While the song has an element of uncertainty, the questions are answered on the grinding, symphonic-rock ballad “Sides”. Featuring Natalie Mering (a.k.a. Weyes Blood), the song is two lovers coming closer together and realizing their world begins and ends with each other. Marius and Cosette. Erik and Christine. Romeo and Juliet. Famous couples in theater to which this song could apply.
Through the first eleven songs, Perfume Genius guides us through the intricacies of love and how it defines our existence. But it isn’t until the album’s closer that Hadreas has written a song solely for himself and the man in his life. “Alan” was written for his longtime partner and bandmate Alan Wyffles. The song is the most stripped-down and intimate on the album, and it is also arguably its most beautiful. Like all the great finales, “Alan” will leave a lasting, emotional imprint and possibly a few tears behind, particularly as Hadreas’ aching voice sings:
Thought I’d hide
Maybe leave something secret behind
Never thought I’d sing outside
You need me
With that, the curtain falls and the show ends. For now that is because No Shape is like the great classics – one that must and should be revisited again and again. It is bold, ambitious, and beautiful. It is one of the best of the albums of the year, and most definitely 2017’s biggest spectacle.
No Shape is out now via Matador Records.
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