Fragility is perhaps the most integral aspect of Perfume Genius’ artistry. Whether it be his experiences as a homosexual or his history with Crohn’s disease, Perfume Genius, the stage name of Mike Hadreas, routinely puts many of the most intimate details of his personal life on exhibition, all for the admirably selfless purpose of shining a light on pressing issues from domestic abuse to the treatment of gay men in the modern world. With the heartrending frailty of Hadreas’ vibrato-laden voice paralleling the vulnerable nature of the singer-songwriter’s exposing lyrical explorations, Perfume Genius’ music has retained a palpable fragility, regardless of the sonic and stylistic aesthetic employed by the artist. Undoubtedly, when it comes to singer-songwriter records, typically those with a more raw and stripped-back sound are perceived as more cogent in conveying a sense of intimacy and delicacy, and this was certainly the case on Hadreas’ lo-fi debut, Learner. This being said, even as the musician started expanding the instrumental palette of his music on his second studio album, Put Your Back N 2 It, and even as he began to adopt more conventional pop song structures on his third and previous album, Too Bright from 2014, this fragility remained at the core of his quivering balladry. With his three full-length releases up until this point seemingly signifying a gradual trend towards an orthodox chamber pop sound, the sudden stylistic shift on Perfume Genius’ newest record, No Shape, comes as quite a surprise. As the name seems to suggest, No Shape abandons the customary compositional approach to pop music of Too Bright and instead opts for an attitude towards song structure that is exponentially more winding and volatile, with many of the cuts in the tracklisting coming across as if they were intentionally tailored to catch the listener off-guard with their tangled motifs. On the other hand, No Shape by no means marks a U-turn for Perfume Genius when it comes to the once lo-fi nature of his music, rather his latest endeavour employs some of his glitziest glam rock arrangements to date, which can make the tortuous song structures featured across the album even more jarring at times. Indeed, No Shape is quite the rollercoaster of a record, and intentionally so, but with this change of pace to a deliberately dishevelled disposition comes a sacrifice of consistency in tone in a way that doesn’t always play to the strengths of Perfume Genius’ style. With the timbre across No Shape being perhaps the glossiest and generally most luscious of any project from Hadreas, there are nevertheless many satisfying moments of aesthetic grandeur across the album, but it’s beneath this sleek veneer wherein some of these pieces suffer slightly, occasionally only translating Perfume Genius’ glamour in short bursts of brightness. This, paired with the fact that, despite the album’s fractured nature, some impactful ideas are reused to the point of losing their initial potency, makes No Shape an oddly inconsistent and botchy release for Perfume Genius, even if it his most aesthetically pleasing.
Slip Away, the lead single from No Shape, established the duality of tones and textures that would go on to recur across the course of the album and, as a single, it fulfilled this role incredibly effectively. Although primarily synth-driven and with the pretence of an art pop tune, the patterings of glitchy electronics across the cut drive the composition forward with the propelling force of a straight-up rock song. Likewise, with the vibrato and whiffs of falsetto of Hadreas’ voice introducing Slip Away with a similar vulnerability to that which has been displayed on many a Perfume Genius song at this point, the sudden, kaleidoscopic eruption of glistening synths and straight, thumping, propulsive rhythms makes for one of the most dynamic and explosive songs of his discography. Then again, in the context of the record, the fact that Slip Away, the second song in the tracklisting, is placed after the opening cut of Otherside, which utilises practically the exact same abrupt outburst of dazzling synth textures following a delicate performance from Hadreas, can somewhat dull its impact. With the initial, fractured, falsetto balladry of the singer’s delivery being paired with a tinkling of some dainty piano arpeggios, as to make for an exceptionally vulnerable performance, the sudden surge of silky synths is undoubtedly forceful, but with both Otherside and No Shape being structured so similarly and incorporating this technique in an identical fashion, their side-by-side positioning in the tracklisting surely works against the persuasive impression that this trick could leave on the listener.
Of course, few of the underlying structural issues of No Shape relate to its recycling of motifs, with the record being highly capricious and never settled on one idea or refrain for too long, rather it’s the occasional lack of direction, coherence or focus evident in the execution of a handful of the album’s ambitious ventures that can somewhat blunt its impact. The second single teased in preparation for the release of the record, Go Ahead, stands as one of the more bewildering compositional endeavours from No Shape, although this was likely the intention of Hadreas. Even still, the frenetic and seemingly arbitrary percussion that bounces all over the mix, as the artist attempts to guide the song forward with a notably more restrained vocal performance, comes across as being rather disorientating, with no sense of consistency to anchor these off-the-wall rhythmic freak-outs in any semblance of a strong framework that compensates for their unmethodical nature. Similarly, Hadreas’ singing never really finds its footing over this instrumental more than it stumbles around in an attempt to desperately fit in somewhere, ultimately coming across as rather clumsy, which isn’t helped by the fact that his vocal performance on this track is one of the more technically lacking across the album. On the other side of the spectrum are songs like Run Me Through, whose structures can be both aimless at times, as well as uncharacteristically unchanging compared to the rest of the record. Run Me Through is largely based around a simple pattern of warm keyboard chords and an accompanying vocal performance from Hadreas, but with so much of the song’s runtime being dedicated to this invariable motif, it simply feels out of place in the context of No Shape, which is only exacerbated by the fact that it’s one of the longer cuts in the tracklisting. In fact, the only real instance of variation comes in the form of an abrupt break in the piece’s structure with a sparse section of nothing but looming, swirling synth drones, and the occasional breath of a vocal melody, which simply comes across as directionless and a disruption to the minimal flow the song had originally established, with the purpose of this passage remaining rather unclear.
Indeed, No Shape is unequivocally the most disjointed and inconsistent record from Hadreas to date, but if there’s one saving grace, it’s the ravishing instrumental arrangements and heartfelt performances that encapsulate and expand upon what has defined Perfume Genius’ definitive artistry throughout his career. The best moments from No Shape could be said to balance decadence and intimacy in a way that complements both sides to Perfume Genius’ persona that have been established between Learner and Too Bright. Comparing the verse and chorus sections of Just Like Love potently highlights this polarity, with the fairground-like keyboard chords playing against the bubbly bounce of the bass and jangling percussive embellishments during the verse, whilst the chorus strips back these indulgences, allowing Hadreas’ wispy falsetto vocals to gracefully intertwine with the soaring pirouettes of the strings. Likewise, the waltzing taps of acoustic guitar chords on Valley retain a feeling of grandeur in spite of the song’s comparatively scarce instrumental palette, largely courtesy of the elegant trills of Hadreas’ warm vocal performance and the tasteful incorporation of gently quivering strings and smatterings of shimmering electric guitar. The interpolation of lyrics from Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill on Wreath fittingly reflects the aesthetic change of Perfume Genius’ artistic sensibilities on No Shape away from the Bowie-esque glamour of Put Your Back N 2 It and Too Bright, and towards a more refined and charming art pop sound. In the same vein, the integration of baroque pop instrumentation on this track reinforces this tone shift, especially as the accented booms of buzzing synth fuzz bolster the dainty harpsichord embellishments that flutter atop an exceptionally sticky vocal refrain from Hadreas.
Most definitely, whether it be the exquisite climax of stunning strings on Every Night or Hadreas’ compelling chemistry with alternative singer-songwriter Weyes Blood on Sides, the liberal approach to much of the timbre across No Shape is extravagant in a way that sacrifices neither the intimacy of the acute, stripped-back Learner nor the striking glitz of Too Bright. It’s the liberal approach to the compositional structuring utilised across much of the record, however, wherein certain songs fall short of striking the balance between adventurous experimentation and a consistency in execution that grounds such explorative endeavours in a wholly cohesive foundation. It’s not as if Hadreas struggles to translate his familiar poetic fragility through such a fractured songwriting style, but from the listener’s perspective, a handful of undertakings across the album can be dishevelled to the point of distraction, which certainly doesn’t help bring attention to the artist’s usual meditations and dissections on his personal subject matter. Undoubtedly, No Shape is quite the turbulent listening experience, but what it signifies for the future of Perfume Genius is surely positive overall. The fact that Hadreas has demonstrated himself capable of balancing intimacy and indulgence is more than enough evidence that, if he goes on to pursue the lush stylings flaunted on his latest album with more structural cohesion, future endeavours into this flashy and sultry decadence could prove to further define Perfume Genius as an emblem of art pop resplendence.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10