Like the three albums that came before it, “No Shape” — the newest release from Perfume Genius, helmed by Mike Hadreas — begins with a piano. Over the course of Perfume Genius’s discography, the sound of these opening piano notes has reflected the project’s evolution, from the lo-fi sounds of debut “Learning” to the polished production on “Too Bright,” Perfume Genius’s 2014 breakthrough. On “Otherside,” the new album’s opening song, the piano sounds so immaculately produced that it’s almost disorienting. It’s also a feint; just after Hadreas sings the chorus — “rocking you to sleep/From the Otherside” — the piano returns for one second before a burst of light and sound blows the song wide open. Then it’s back to the piano, and the song repeats itself. All in under three minutes.
“No Shape” is full of songs that are full of tricks and treats like these. They’re full of strange noises — ones that thump, ones that scrape, ones that dazzle — that don’t sound like they could have come from any instrument. They lie in wait before exploding into the chorus, seemingly out of nowhere, then recoil. Sometimes they eschew repetitive structures altogether and end in a completely different place than they began. Ten of the album’s 13 songs are over in three-and-a-half minutes or less; by the time the listener has processed what they’ve just heard, they’re well into the next one.
Production credit goes to Blake Mills, who has recently worked with Sky Ferreira, Conor Oberst, Fiona Apple and Jim James — a who’s who of Pitchfork darlings. On “Too Bright,” Hadreas worked with Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley, whose production style made for songs that sounded more spacious and accessible than what Perfume Genius had recorded before. While Mills’ production on “No Shape” helps further Hadreas’ march away from the lo-fi nature of the latter’s early output, it also produces an album that is denser and more experimental. If listeners came away from “Too Bright” thinking that future Perfume Genius albums would take on a slicker, more pop-friendly sound, “No Shape” suggests otherwise.
Advance singles “Slip Away” and “Go Ahead” are pop songs in the verse-chorus-verse sense, even if they don’t sound like them. If anyone else had written “Slip Away,” it would probably be a neon-tinged ‘80s throwback about forbidden love: “They’ll never break the shape we take/Baby let all them voices slip away.” But this is Perfume Genius, so the beat sounds grimy and metallic. Similarly, “Go Ahead,” in Hadreas’ hands, is an understated taunt, riding a confusing, stuttering bassline. “What you think?” he rhetorically asks his detractors, before delivering a brutal clapback: “I don’t remember asking.”
Confrontational lyrics such as these were more common on “Too Bright” — who can forget Hadreas crooning “no family is safe when I sashay” on “Queen”? — than they are on “No Shape,” but the album does revisit some of Perfume Genius’ common themes. “Valley” is a moving character study of substance abuse, something that Hadreas and his partner struggled with for years, sung to a woman he met in rehab. The song that follows, “Wreath,” is as charging as “Valley” is intimate. Hadreas has Crohn’s disease, and he has sung about his disgust with his physical form before (he once compared his body to a “rotting peach” and a “gutted pig” on “My Body”). But on “Wreath,” Hadreas tempts ridding himself of his body altogether. “Running up that hill/I’m gonna peel off every weight/Until my body gives away,” he sings, swiping the title of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” another song about transcending physical forms to reach a higher understanding.
And that’s just the first half of the album. After “Wreath,” the album veers into more experimental sound and songwriting. Take “Choir,” where Hadreas whispers paranoia over a frantic violin; take “Sides,” a striking duet with Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood that feels almost like two takes on the same song. Or, even better, take “Die 4 You,” where erotic asphyxiation becomes a metaphor for total submission. It’s a minimalist, borderline weightless track that triangulates How to Dress Well, Portishead, and Wild Beasts without really sounding like any of them.
But it’s the album’s closing number that might be the most unexpected song in Perfume Genius’s entire oeuvre: a love song with a happy ending. With its muted piano, clear vocals and reverberating strings, “Alan” — dedicated to and named after Hadreas’ partner of eight years — sounds like it’s coming down from heaven. “You need me/Rest easy,” Hadreas whispers to the man he loves, before howling, “I’m here/How weird.” Finding someone who will not just help you overcome the worst in yourself, but protect you from those who seek to demoralize your love at every turn, isn’t just weird. It’s all one could ever hope to find. Hadreas spent years searching for it, and on “No Shape,” he celebrates the fact that he did, singing to us from the Otherside, wherever that may be.
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu