Beginning with the fragile woundedness of his 2010 debut Learning, Mike Hadreas’s music as Perfume Genius has been unrepentantly queer from the start. Even so, the release of his third effort Too Bright nearly three years ago marked a turning point for the project, trading in the subtle transgression of his previous albums for a more overtly defiant sound, particularly in the case of the glam rock opus “Queen”. While No Shape marks Perfume Genius’s fourth album overall, it’s hard not to think of it as a sophomore album of sorts, a follow-up to the work that brought him a spot of newfound attention and recognition.
Yet Hadreas takes another left turn with the album, and while it bears many of his trademark touches, No Shape also stands resolutely as its own work. Jettisoning any traces of David Bowie or T. Rex, the album pursues more of an ornate art pop sound reminiscent of Joanna Newsom or Kate Bush, even going so far as to reference “Running Up That Hill” on “Wreath”. Whereas Hadreas emphasized anger on Too Bright, his latest release is a lighter and more floral effort, its baroque, left-of-center instrumentation supporting its incisive pop hooks. While occasionally fussy and over-adorned, it is nonetheless a triumphant return for Hadreas that finds him continuing to explore his sound and artistic identity.
“Slip Away”, the first taste listeners received from the album, remains the most solid and infectious offering here. Hadreas’s melodic precision makes for an uncanny earworm, channeling the propulsive energy of a rock song while employing distended, wobbly instrumentation that elevates the track into a proud oddity. The song is every bit as liberating as his lyrical desire to “break free” would suggest. Admittedly, however, Hadreas sometimes leans too heavily on bombast to achieve these ends, like when the abrupt cascade of sound rains down after the first chorus. After pulling the same loud-quiet trick on preceding track “Otherside”, it comes across as a forced left turn where Hadreas could have simply allowed the song to grow and expand naturally. This is but a minor complaint, however, and “Slip Away” remains one of the more memorable tracks of his career thus far.
Hadreas remains musically adventurous throughout. On “Die 4 You”, he croons breathily like an R&B star while strangely (but effectively) channeling Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page”. The breezy “Just Like Love” takes cues from ’60s girl groups, while the guitar line on “Sides” provides one of the few traces of glam rock left over in the wake of “Queen”.
Those craving the pathos and weighty emotionality of previous Perfume Genius efforts may feel rebuffed by No Shape‘s relatively lighter, summery sound. The tortured divine rapture of “Choir”, however, sticks out as a key exception in this regard. A throwback to hymnals like Learning‘s “Gay Angels”, this short cut is more an exercise in arch chamber music than pop, but it is also one of the most arresting moments here. “I can’t dream / Something keeps me locked,” Hadreas moans absently, his processed vocals crystallizing his pain and transcendence alike. Later, he summarizes the feeling more bluntly: “It’s weird here.”
Indeed, weirdness remains an animating ideal for Perfume Genius, and Hadreas concludes the album by once again pledging allegiance to the concept. “I’m here, I’m weird,” he intones on “Alan”. With the album’s final line, he modulates the phrase slightly to be less identitarian and more existential: “I’m here, how weird”. As its title suggests, No Shape is playfully elusive, and the album is often content simply to create beauty while remaining agnostic about what lies beneath its surface. The result is an ironically more luminous and even joyful listen than the darker Too Bright. Imperfect yet fascinating and occasionally gorgeous, No Shape once again expands and defies any preconceived boundaries of the Perfume Genius project.