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No Shape is the fourth album by Perfume Genius, who receives mail as Mike Hadreas in Tacoma, where he lives with his boyfriend and bandmate, Alan Wyffels. Seven years ago, Hadreas animated a voice he’s been fighting ever since. “Learning,” the title track of his first album, is a village of threats reduced to one character, probably a parent. Over rudimentary piano chords that sound like “Heart and Soul,” Hadreas sings the speech of someone bearing down on him: “No one will answer your prayers until you take off that dress. No one will hear all your crying until you take your last breath. But you will learn to mind me and you will learn to survive me.” Bullied while growing up in Seattle — for being gay, for simply being — Hadreas has used Perfume Genius as a way to survive and defeat those who refuse to see him.
No Shape is the sound of a benevolent empath who has tired of having so much to know, and has built himself a retreat. Produced by Blake Mills, No Shape is humane, batshit, epic, compact, out of time, and glorious. The instrumentation is native to rock and classical, free of extensive electronic processing, and the various motifs tend toward the simple. Hadreas brings the vertigo by switching at unexpected times to unexpected things — wind chimes when you assume a power chord is coming, an empty spot where you were certain the drums would be. Hadreas and Mills call down swatches of Portishead, Kate Bush, Blossom Dearie, Suicide, Karen Carpenter, and Bruce Springsteen as needed. No Shape is an ecstatic world won from steady application to the task of never apologizing for the luminous. Perfume Genius, the presence, revels in the pride of no longer taking the enemies’ threats seriously.
I spoke to Hadreas by phone early in May, the day before his current tour began in Detroit.
“I like the idea of tricking people,” he said. “Having it be seemingly pleasant, but there’s a little something naughty in there, or icky, a warm ickiness. That feels close to how I actually feel day to day — it’s not all in either direction.”
No Shape is an example of détournement and exploded pop. Much of the album plays with the idea of the torch song, a plaint slowed down and exaggerated for clarity. “Choir” is at one edge of this territory, barely inside the realm of song. Violins are sawed while a choir sings in some huge and unnamed space. Hadreas puts his voice through muffling devices, giving him a flat, claustrophobic affect that suits the words, more dialogue than melody: “It’s weird here, choirs threaten in voices I only feel. Something tightens if I don’t hold still.”
“Choir” is a link back to Too Bright, his 2014 album, a cloud of grit and sparkles.
“Before I wrote a lot of the songs that ended up on No Shape,” Hadreas said, “I wrote stuff that was legit more experimental, that probably would have been difficult to listen to. That was what I thought I was supposed to do after Too Bright. I thought it would be the most cathartic thing to chant over drones. It didn’t turn out to be so inspired. There’s something a lot more wild and free and artful about this, even though I was writing melodies that I knew were catchy.”
“Wreath” is one of the catchy ones, a bit like a solo Lindsey Buckingham track sung by someone else. Everything is pegged to a quarter-note thrum that makes it feel like there must be a drum track underneath, though aside from one dark thud, there isn’t. Hadreas is heralding an escape from his body, an idea that he plays with on every album. The music surges into this negation: “Burn off every trace, I wanna hover with no shape. I wanna feel the days go by, not stack up.” Hadreas triggers his goof in the chorus, dropping into what might be labeled his Straight White Serious Guy voice: “I see the sun go down, I see the sun come up.”
Playing at Brooklyn Steel last week to a capacity crowd of eighteen hundred, Hadreas was not that guy at all. Once he’d thrown off his billowy white shirt, what remained was a couture piece by Jacquemus — a wide pair of pants joined on top by a panel of corset, or a modified bustier. The harder Hadreas threw his bare shoulders back, the more his outfit devoured him.
His live band is the same as it has been for several tours — Wyffels on keyboards, Herve Picard on drums, and Tom Bromley on bass and guitar. Onstage, Hadreas was a worker, carefully moving in and out of his falsetto, navigating the sudden crash intros and long stretches of quiet. In performance and in videos, he is creating a language somewhere between fashion and dance. Helpfully bony and elegant, Hadreas strikes poses that melt into activity. His shoulders are a flourish for him, his neck its own profile. The body that he frets over has become an excellent tool for dissolving all kinds of edges.
The glamour of the singer was consistently undercut by his sweet, mumbled stage banter. Toward the end of the set, after playing several numbers seated at his keyboard, Hadreas rose and went back to his spotlight, stage right, right next to Wyffels. “Oh, I’m up again,” he cracked. “Yep. Still up,” he said, wandering into position.
A few songs before ending on “Queen,” a swaggering glam-rock tune that has become an anthem, Hadreas played and sang “Learning” with Wyffels sitting next to him on the same bench. An encore the two have done before, it signified instantly to the crowd. Here was the domestic bliss the voice in “Learning” was afraid of. And if Hadreas wasn’t in a dress, his baroque pant arrangement was probably more aggressively un-male. He’s done much more than survive.