“Rest easy, I’m here,” sings Mike Hadreas towards the end of No Shape, his latest album. “How weird.” He sings that last phrase, elongating it, yelling out to the cosmos. His voice is a beacon. It’s almost comical the way the uncertainty of his words clash with the strength of his vocals. But it’s taken a while for Hadreas, who performs as Perfume Genius, to let himself sing out—so why not?
Press around Hadreas’ first couple of albums made specific note of the quietness of it all; the way his voice sounded so fragile, so alone. His third album, 2014’s Too Bright, was richer and more extroverted, but only in comparison—it was still, at times, an almost painfully spare work. No Shape changes that. “I needed some convincing at first that [music] is what I’m supposed to be doing, or that I’m good at it, or that I can actually sing,” says Hadreas over the phone. “I think I’m just more confident now, so I feel like I can pull from different influences than I did last time. I can do things that I didn’t know I could before.”
No Shape was written before the US election, but there will undoubtedly be listeners who will want to hear the record as a response to the Trump Administration. And while it’s not reactionary, Hadreas’ music will always be political—for an openly gay man to make such unashamedly queer, femme pop music is itself an act of defiance. Hadreas expresses horror at the election result but there’s a sense that No Shape wouldn’t be that different if it was written post-election. “I’m always kinda writing music [as protest],” he explains. “Maybe it was on a different scale before the election. It wasn’t necessarily; I knew how horrible things were. I knew how fucking awful people were. I’ve known that for a long time.”
Hadreas’ work has always been enamoured with the body—the way it is interrogated and policed. Much of No Shape looks beyond just the body, instead considering how we can transcend physicality altogether. On ‘Choir’, the album’s thrilling, frightening centerpiece, Hadreas finds himself trapped: “I can’t dream,” he whispers on the song, “Something keeps me locked and bodied.”
“Body stuff is just such an easy place for me to put whatever leftover dread or buzzing anxiety I have into something that is more seemingly controllable, or something to blame or give shape to,” Hadreas says thoughtfully. “It feels embarrassing—I don’t really like that that’s what I picked. I even asked my therapist, like, ‘Can you help me switch this to something else?’”
More than any other Perfume Genius record, No Shape asks questions about how mind interacts with body, and vice versa. As Hadreas puts it, “If we can’t get rid of all this anxiety and dread can we at least shift it, so we’re not stuck in such a vain way of feeling?”
These concepts, for Hadreas, come from a place of anxiety surrounding his mental and physical health. “I’ve just noticed that no matter my circumstances, no matter my level of health, [they don’t] really have any bearing on how I actually feel,” he explains matter-of-factly. “I used to have a lot more health issues, and glaring problems that I could always blame my mental health on. So when those kind of get healed up and you’re still sort of not stable even though everything around you is still stable, it’s a very confusing place to be.”
There is a theatricality present now that simply wasn’t at play across the first three Perfume Genius albums. This set of songs is still deeply emotional, but the lyrics are delivered with a smirk; the glam-rock vocal modulations that Hadreas experimented with on Too Bright’s ‘Grid’ are fully utilized here. A lot of time and a lot of practice helped Hadreas get to the point he’s at now. “I didn’t feel like [No Shape] needed to always be so hushed, or like I’m being spied on. I didn’t need it to be a glorified bedroom recording. I can be more upfront [with the fact that] this is a performance, that this is made in a studio.”
Fittingly, No Shape looks to one of pop’s most transgressive, most unashamedly performative stars for inspiration: Kate Bush. “I just love how willing she is to go there. She’s just kinda fearless,” Hadreas says of Bush, who he pays homage to on No Shape track ‘Wreath’. “She’s just completely following her instincts and her gut and what she wants to talk about, what kind of world she wants to make, what she wants the world to look like. She’s not trying to keep it cute, or tidy.” It’s the kind of thing someone could say about Hadreas’ latest album. It’s sometimes messy, and sometimes hard to fully comprehend, but it sounds like Perfume Genius; and Perfume Genius alone.
Despite this newfound fearlessness that underpins the album, there’s still a current of anxiety cutting through. This isn’t passive, though – Hadreas embraces his discussion of anxiety and unease because, in his own words, he’s “so good at it.” It’s nice to hear him talk about mental health like this—heartening to hear it actively channeled into power, creativity. “I just feel like I’m good at carrying those things and talking about them. I’m kind of proud of myself when I do it. It feels helpful,” he admits. “I’m not too shy about it.”
- By: Shaad D'Souza