Mike Hadreas’ fourth record is pure decadence. It’s his most realized album yet, a tender and transcendental protest record of love and devotion.
From ancient Lesbos to ’60s SoHo, drag balls to Paradise Garage, queer havens aren’t just shelters created in opposition to the wider world, but hives of imagination and creativity where alternate realities reign, even if they sometimes dissolve at dawn. Perfume Genius’ fourth album, No Shape, is one of them. On 2014’s Too Bright, Mike Hadreas laid down the law when he commanded, “No family is safe when I sashay,” on the iconic “Queen.” But this time, he’s scarcely interested in using his steely blue gaze to challenge bigots. Instead, he preserves it to revere Alan Wyffels, his long-term boyfriend and musical collaborator, and to elevate their love to a heavenly plane. He and Wyffels met as recovering addicts—on No Shape, hard-won stability is a sacrament.
If Hadreas’ theme is insular, the mood on No Shape’s first half is ecstatic. These songs swoop and chatter like flocks of mad starlings, light up like religious paintings, flounce like all the pink frills in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, make the cosmos explode inside your ribs. If that sounds like too much, that’s the point. No Shape rebukes tasteful minimalism and embraces beauty at its most transgressive, harking back to the aestheticism and decadence movements of the 19th century, as well as Kate Bush and Prince’s most lurid extroversions. This inflated yet elegant dynamic sustains Hadreas’ own private joy: “If you never see them coming/You never have to hide,” he sings on “Slip Away,” a song that sounds perpetually under siege in a majestic fantasy battle. A few lines later, he insists, “If we only got a moment/Give it to me now,” and holds up his end of the bargain by giving literally everything he’s got.
Even if it’s a feint, Hadreas’ confidence is brazen and contagious. He subverts religious devotion on “Just Like Love,” admiring a young queer in an outlandish outfit. They’re “christening the shape,” and “cultivating grace,” and they walk “just like love.” It’s the kind of song that makes rags feel like ball gowns, and should probably have been playing when Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus. A prowling bass adds lust to Hadreas’ admiration, his crooned vocal styling referencing the period in the 1920s when intimate, amplified male voices were vilified for challenging ideas about how real men should sing. Using that register to exalt another man’s appearance is even more radical, and Hadreas knows it as he instructs the object of his affection to stand tall in the face of opposition: “When it happens again/Baby, hold on and stare them down.”
On Too Bright, bodies were “cracked, peeling, riddled with disease,” rotting fruit, sources of shame and revulsion that recalled Francis Bacon’s contorted 1970s portraits. Here, they’re as divine as the same-sex lovers depicted in trailblazing fin de siècle artist Simeon Solomon’s paintings. Hadreas lets himself be beautiful on “Go Ahead,” where he shuts down gawking onlookers with a withering retort. “What you think?/I don’t remember asking,” he tuts. He humors them for a moment—“You can even say a little prayer for me/Baby, I’m already walking in the light”—before throwing in a musical punchline at their expense, too, a moment of ambient reflection dismissed by a tart, cartoonish chime that he deploys like a sprinkle of Himalayan salt. The final part of the song whirrs and glitters, propelling Hadreas towards the heavens as he urges once more, “Go ahead—go ahead and try,” knowing nothing can touch him.
Transcendence is key to No Shape, and at its most explicit on “Wreath,” which references Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” both in its lyrics and breathless spirit. Like “Slip Away,” it’s a race to outrun the inevitable—in this case, Hadreas’ own physical form and identity, the prejudice projected onto it and the Crohn's disease within it. “I’m gonna peel off every weight/Until my body gives way/And shuts up,” he swears. Post-Trump, the Jenny Holzer Truism, “THE IDEA OF TRANSCENDENCE IS USED TO OBSCURE OPPRESSION” has regathered its power, as if urging vigilance against fantastical ideas. But for marginalized artists, that escape offers a short reprieve from psychological and physical persecution. To demand that Hadreas and his kin exist only in opposition to the political abyss is its own form of constriction. No Shape is a transcendental protest record and the divide between its two halves makes patently clear the challenge of staying present, staying alive, and staying in love as a queer person in 2017. “How long must we live right/Before we don’t even have to try?” Hadreas cries on “Valley General,” a graceful, pulsing tribute to another lost soul.
Most of No Shape’s first half finds Hadreas holding a pose in the outside world, refusing to conform. But it's hard to convince yourself of your own power, and on album’s second half, he struggles to break free. The blossom falls from the trees, leaving a claustrophobic atmosphere that recalls Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America, David Bowie’s Low, and Angelo Badalamenti’s Soundtrack From Twin Peaks. Each song creaks eerily, indicating a lingering but unseen presence: a ghost on the queasy “Every Night”; threatening voices that haunt Hadreas’ sleepless nights on frenzied violin freakout “Choir”; a lover on “Sides,” a gorgeous duet with Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering. Hadreas wanders through this ruined palace of a song, searching for his absent love: “Where do you go sometimes/Idle and empty-eyed?” The song shifts gears from searching to spectral, and Mering trills in response, “Don’t want to watch the world we made break/And it’s never too late to stay.”
Rather than an entreaty from one lover to another, it seems to be a duet between Hadreas’ dueling impulses—the one that wants to dissolve, and the one adjusting to the realization that this is what the long haul looks like, as close to contentment as it gets. It’s not possible to transform into air, but love and sex may offer the closest analog to that weightless freedom he dreams of. His voice is ecstatic and disembodied on “Die 4 You,” which uses erotic asphyxiation as a metaphor for total commitment, a mellow trip-hop beat evoking the supposedly blissful sensation of suffocation. “Run Me Through” is glimmering doom jazz, a twisted cabaret where Hadreas urges, “Wear me like a leather/Just for you,” lingering over each word of his intimate, unsettling proposition.
For all the overwhelming physical sensations on No Shape, nothing is as flooring as “Alan,” the album’s concluding devotional, which echoes the beautiful decay of William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops. “Thought I’d hide,” Hadreas mumbles in an unusually low voice. “Maybe leave something secret behind/Never thought I’d sing outside.” Love saved Hadreas from abjection and gave him his voice when the odds were stacked against his survival. “I’m here,” he marvels. “How weeeeeeiiiiiiiird.” He belts the word like he’s pouring it into the Grand Canyon, his astonished gratitude more than justifying No Shape’s audacious and spectacular high stakes. Being present and being loved is the best anyone can hope for. For some people, it’s so much more than they could ever have expected. What sounds like heaven to Hadreas may seem commonplace to others, but No Shape makes you understand how it looks from his rapturous vantage point.