How ludicrously exquisite can pop music get? Truly, how much tingly elegance can be layered into songs of piercing beauty before the material shifts and ripples into something else entirely, some fragile creation that begs for the invention of a whole new artistic designation. Words must be coined, because the contents of the current dictionary are inadequate. Others have flirted with this level of dazzling transformation — Kate Bush comes immediately to mind — but it’s beginning to seem that Mike Hadreas, in his guise as Perfume Genius, may yet reach it.
No Shape is the fourth full-length studio release under the Perfume Genius banner, and it’s plainly a stunner. The album opens with “Otherside,” a spare, lovely melody playing as Hadreas coos out the lyrics with agonizing patience. After he intones, “Rocking you to sleep/ From the otherside,” the music explodes into a burst of astonishing sound that seems designed to accompany the dense shower of golden streamers from the rafters of the world’s most resplendent gay dance club on the last night of the universe. Really, that’s the closest I can come to describing the impact of the moment. And it’s not atypical. Across the album’s thirteen tracks, Hadreas offers densely-packed musical creations that meld the orchestral with the intimate. It’s a movie score from a better future that’s also been scorched with the sharp emotion of poetry wrenched from a hesitant, blooming soul.
By Hadreas’s own accounting, it is the stabilizing force of a healthy romantic relationship that has made his pen mighty. The album is filled with songs that are precious paeans to the love he’s found, such as the surging single “Slip Away” (“Take my hand/ Take my everything/ If we only got a moment/ Give it to me now’) and the tender album closer “Alan” (named after Hadreas’s partner). But Hadreas knows the world can also scald, and the songs carry those lessons, too. Sounding like the product a amalgamation of Magnetic Fields and Culture Club assembled in Heaven, “Just Like Love” is an it-gets-better testimony to finding resolve in the darkest times within a bullying society (“When it happens again/ Baby hold on and stare them down”). And the pulsating “Wreath” finds Hadreas confronting the failings of his own body (he has been afflicted with Crohn’s disease) with a dizzying mix of resignation and defiance.
Arguably more than any other performer actively making music today, Hadreas is insistent about bringing the listener along on his questing journey of damage and rejoicing. In exposing the roiling wavelengths of his inner life, Hadreas challenges himself to craft music that is a proper match to the entanglements of sensations he finds when he cracks wide his heart. It’s stirring to realize that he largely meets this challenge. Though this might be overstatement, it feels true: No Shape approaches the miraculous.