Perhaps the most immediate thing one notices when delving into Perfume Genius’ newest record No Shape is how optimistic and hopeful it both begins and ends. Mike Haedreas’ fourth album under this moniker lets itself relatively loose from the more painful aspects of addiction, heartbreak, and the life as a gay man for a documentation of a deep relationship with a partner.
Hadreas’ relationship with his boyfriend Alan Wyffles seems to color the record with its most tender moments, such as the final track which is seeming named after his longtime partner, “Alan." For an album by Perfume Genius to end with “Rest easy, I’m here, how weird” feels almost baffling looking back at a record like Put Your Back N To It. The temptation then is to lump No Shape in with other albums celebrating romantic and relationship success, domesticity, and the feelings associated with them, something like Lennon and Ono's Double Fantasy. However, such a comparison ignores the lyrical and emotional complexity of No Shape not always found in such records.
“Sides” explores the feelings that develop over time in a long relationship, as Hadreas’ character pleads against the other voice, a delightful cameo by Weyes Blood, to stop shutting themselves away from love. In other places, a ballad of devotion between Hadreas and Wyffles becomes a testament to how time leads to a stronger bond with a phrase simple as “woven slowly." Hadreas’ lyrical brevity and unpretentiousness return on this record, but so does his mastery of the turn of phrase. His power to define moods and relationships in so few words remains an astounding gift.
Where Hadreas’ songwriting has perhaps developed most is the records expanded sense of scale and instrumentation, and producer Blake Mills provided a perfect fit for this record. No Shape’s swampy low-end makes even the briefest jams a dense and exciting listen, while Mills’ skill in recording intimate acoustic guitars and vocals is well-used in the record’s quieter moments. No track represents this growth quite like opener "Other Side," which begins with a simple piano figure, but blooms into an electronic lullaby unlike anything else he's ever done. It’s a stunning moment - one of the album’s most exciting - and shows a songwriter never content to stay on one idea too long.
Even though previous record Too Bright had electronic flourishes such as its lead single “Queen," they've never been more pronounced than on No Shape standouts like “Slip Away” or “Wreath." The only thing listeners might yearn for is just more from the more anthemic, large tracks. Given the scale of “Otherside” and “Slip Away," they breeze by, barely giving listeners time to live inside them before Hadreas moves to another idea. Given the Perfume Genius standard seems to be shorter songs this might feel a deliberate structural decision, but other tracks reach nearly five minutes (an eternity by Hadreas’ previous standards), so this decision feels somewhat curious. However, this issue is a relatively minor one in a well sequenced and consistently engaging record. Hadreas wisely structured the record with exciting and energetic openings and climaxes, leaving some of the more intimate moments for the records’ rewarding middle third such as the ethereal and haunting “Every Night."
Given the sometimes-overwhelming sense of darkness and sadness that often pervaded previous Perfume Genius records, listeners will find No Shape refreshingly optimistic and full of lighter moments. But the complexity of the record, with such topics ranging from Hadreas’ battle with Crohn’s disease to intimate relational moments, encapsulates a vivid picture of an already compelling songwriter growing into one of the most valuable we have.