On “No Shape,” the introspective artist Perfume Genius sounds unexpectedly victorious.
In his lyrics, Mike Hadreas, the thirty-five-year-old musician who records as Perfume Genius, expresses a relationship to the body that is at once violent and tender. He glorifies abjection, and lavishes sweetness on images of grisly decay. On his second album, 2012’s “Put Your Back N 2 It,” he sings, above a faintly iterating piano chord, of his body as a “ripe swollen shape”—which is stuffed into the body of a violin, strung up on a fence, and covered in semen. The melody is fond and gentle; the song sounds like a benediction. On “Queen,” from his 2014 album “Too Bright,” Hadreas crowns himself with the gay epithet: “Don’t you know your queen? Ripped, heaving, flowers bloom at my feet.” Drums kick the song into a sadistic, courtly strut, and he repeats the phrase: “Don’t you know your queen? Cracked, peeling, riddled with disease.” The song “My Body,” on the same album, features the couplet “I wear my body like a rotted peach—you can have it if you can handle the stink.”
Hadreas returns to the body on the fourth Perfume Genius album, “No Shape,” released on Friday. This time, though, the songs aren’t reaching across horror toward grace—they are simply, and boldly, graceful. The body has become sturdier, less despotic. On “Slip Away,” a song that shudders with a sort of Arcadian ecstasy, Hadreas croons, “God is singing through your body, and I’m carried by the sound.” The chorus is hopeful: “Love, they’ll never break the shape we take.” It’s a slightly lurid type of happiness; as Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in a 2014 review for this magazine, Perfume Genius transforms beauty and ugliness into doppelgängers. Sometimes, on “No Shape,” Hadreas evades the grotesque by abandoning the body altogether. “Burn off every trace, I wanna hover with no shape,” he sings on “Wreath,” a euphoric track in which he imagines himself in a ghostlike position, “needless, free,” and “moving just beyond the frame.”
“I’m into the idea of being kinder to myself,” Hadreas told me one afternoon this past February, in the leafy courtyard of a hotel on the Lower East Side. The day was as warm as early summer, and the concentrated sunlight made his skin look marble-white and his eyes like pool water. Hadreas grew up outside Seattle, and he was bullied for his effeminacy. “For a long time, my world has been based off how I was treated when I was fourteen,” he said. “How somebody told me something about myself and I believed it, and I’ve been trying to shake it, and sometimes it feels like I’m never going to.” He paused, then added, “But I try to find spiritual comfort in that. I’ll die eventually, and that’s cool. Right now, I’m still limited to all of this”—he gestured dramatically to his body. “But I want to be like Lucy.” For a moment I thought he was referring to a pet—he has a Chihuahua named Wanda—but he meant the post-human character played by Scarlett Johansson, who, in the movie of the same name, says, “I don’t feel pain, fear, desire.”
Hadreas’s previous album, “Too Bright,” was a departure from his first two, which were sparse, novelistic, and personal. On those earlier records, you could sometimes hear him work the pedals as he accompanied himself on piano; he was as introspective, as holy-seeming in his loneliness, as Sufjan Stevens circa “Seven Swans.” On “Too Bright,” his sound grew into something bigger, and became gorgeously brutal: the instrumentation throbbed and buzzed and announced itself, and Hadreas seemed to rear up as he was singing, as if for a confrontation. Hadreas harnessed all this noise with a kind of seething restraint. Most of the songs on the album—which was recorded in Bristol, during winter, and co-produced by Adrian Utley, of Portishead—are strapped down to slow, exacting tempos. The album seems constructed of metal and velvet, trampled flowers and blood.
“No Shape” marks another shift. It was recorded over two months in Los Angeles, and produced by Blake Mills, who’s worked with Fiona Apple and the Alabama Shakes. The album is giddily ambitious, full of sunlight and unfettered rhythm; at various points, it recalls Kate Bush, Prince, and the Velvet Underground. Hadreas has always been an artist of catharsis, grasping toward and inducing spiritual and emotional release. On the new album, the release is physical, too, and the sound approaches straight-up rock. His songwriting is still disciplined but feels unrestricted now. A new arsenal of instruments—warm guitars, amphetamine-speedy strings, synths distorted into vaguely comical registers—tumble and curl through each song.
Before recording “No Shape,” Hadreas had worried about overloading his sound, he told me. For all its abrupt and gutsy glamour, “Too Bright” had been meticulously controlled. “I was always paranoid about doing too much. I didn’t trust that I was musically good enough to hold up to more stuff. I didn’t want to just do my music on one album—and on the next album, do my music, but with strings—and then, on the next album, do my music, but with even more strings,” he said. Hadreas, who has described himself as a “gloomy bitch,” has a dry, quixotic sense of humor. It inflects his music—there’s an undercurrent of irony in his most melodramatic moments—but it is the dominant characteristic of his personality on Twitter and in person. At one point, he told me, “When I say my style is becoming more ‘stereotypically masculine,’ what I mean by that is—maybe no gowns.”
But the effulgence of “No Shape” frees Hadreas. The album opener, “Otherside,” starts off like something from his first two albums: a simple piano arpeggio; a melody that resembles a folk blessing; a low and quivering harmony that cuts the sweetness with a current of unease. One minute in, the instrumentation cuts out completely—then returns like a horror-movie jump scare, with sounds that evoke a chandelier shattering in slow motion, shards of glass suspended and glittering in the air. Another song, “Choir,” reaches for the same unbridled experimental drama: a flurry of strings; a witchy voice cooing. Hadreas sings in a broken, strained whisper: “Something / tightens / if I don’t / hold still.” The violins saw toward ecstasy; it sounds as if Jacob’s Ladder has appeared to him in his sleep.
If you listen to the four Perfume Genius albums in chronological order, you can hear Hadreas healing himself in real time, moving toward an emancipation that seems, suddenly, to have come to pass. The center of his music has always been a defiant delicacy—a ragged, affirmative understanding of despair. “No Shape” finds him unexpectedly victorious, his body exalted. The album is an aesthetic vindication of his unflinching type of love. On the last song, called “Alan,” after his boyfriend, Hadreas slips into a rare lower register, his voice as wispy and warm as a candle’s flicker. “Did you notice that we sleep through the night,” he sings. “Did you notice that everything’s all right.” The strings sweep in, low and loving, and in the last moments of the album, they slip down a half step into dissonance, and then disappear.