Perfume Genius No Shape

[Matador; 2017]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: romance, pastiche
Others: Jenny Hval, serpentwithfeet, Weyes Blood, Kate Bush, Sade, Prince, Cocteau Twins

Something is happening, isn’t it? Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas has a longstanding love of David Lynch. If the content varies, heart-tones resonate between them: weird breaks within conventional structures, a sense of play amidst extreme disquiet, the psychic battle of self-destruction and self-preservation, a dream logic as the undercurrent for telegraphed surprises, and an earnest, if heightened and campy, belief in love’s fantasy. A vision of light. Hadreas is from Washington and must’ve found kindred souls in the sleepy, dreeeamy town of Twin Peaks, even in the dirty, subtitled back rooms of One-Eyed Jack’s or on stage with the slo-mo drift of a spotlighted and vanishing Julee Cruise, staring at night with the whoing owls. In its heartbreaking 14th episode, the roadside singer performs “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart” at The Bang Bang Bar and the volume spikes. The sax rips open a portal while the rest of the song continues on, seemingly unaffected but wholly disturbed.

Perfume Genius refines this loud-quiet on No Shape and continues his fascination with disruption (a Giant materializes to break up several songs here). All of this is introduced with a technique far removed from early recordings, but one that was lurking in the emotional intensity of those songs, here unveiled: volume. No Shape begins the way Perfume Genius albums have always begun, with a softly assured piano melody and the strangely sweet voice that belongs to Hadreas (and sometimes belongs to an angel or a devil, and to us listening, who take it into our own throats to sing along, “Just like love”). But at first, it’s the characteristic softness, which shouldn’t be taken for frailty, though we can be forgiven for thinking so — “Otherside” walks a fine line. So it comes as a system shock when that meager, familiar, prayerful beginning dives headfirst into noise, really plunges into the big sound, like stadium-M83-stardust. Like your headphones held so much more space than you knew and definitely more than you knew Perfume Genius could take up (“Queen” still packs that same punch, but feels roomy compared to this set-dressing-stuffed Otherside). Its power is to restore mystery to your daydreams and to put a skip in your sleepwalk. To take you “away-ee-ay.”

These pop-forward moments are frontloaded on No Shape, extravagant and baroque. The soaring production value is not accompanied by conceptual upending or reinvention, but rather extends into a grand sort of sequel vision of Perfume Genius. “Go Ahead” seems to take up “Fool”; “Valley” echoes “No Good.” There’s the increasing tendency to wear influences on his sleeve alongside his heart. Centerpiece “Wreath” has the big propulsive Kate Bush heart and that “Carolyn’s Fingers” outro. The revelations don’t go quietly. “Slip Away” is bursting at the seams with anthem. So, you learn to love pomp and pastiche, or this whole affair comes off a bit gauche, maybe even obvious along an indie trajectory. But then you’ll miss the hallways and valleys these songs open doors to, the forest for the camp, the delirious smirk behind the smoky eyes. The quirk of Twin Peaks never brought that much levity, all things considered. And it didn’t distract from the abject horror. It all breathed together, mysteriously, without a body.

A threshold has been seen and crossed (the water resistance made a splash on Too Bright, reflecting like a Malibu pool), and now Hadreas is remembering how to tread water, fighting the urge to dive for dark parts, beating back the bore of buoyancy, and cultivating a garden out of his grid. Grafted a peach tree and a pear tree to dream a hundred different possibilities in its shade. The moon and sun are visible at once in the blue expanse of the apocalyptic sky, but below a victory churns in circles. There’s a sort of religious, blockbuster dual-sentimentality that shines over the album, while casting shadows for Side B to cut deeply into. “Choir” makes “Longpig” and “I’m A Mother” seem chill, and “Run Me Through” sidesteps into a hair-raising “Lonely Souls” sax interlude. A fear, confirmed: the possibility that love is not enough. A hope, on the horizon: that at least some love could last forever.

It’s a mystery, perhaps, how the album’s quiet closer “Alan,” a love song for Hadreas’s long-time boyfriend, can sound a victory compared to the jubilant noise of the opener. It’s somewhere in the manifold plea, “How long must we live right/ Before we don’t even have to try” from “Valley.” It’s a question of political respectability and personhood amidst retroactive precarization. It’s a question of self-control and persistence, of the undertow that addiction and depression create like a wavepool of loss, when what was lost felt vital even if it were poisoned. Questions in a world of blue. It’s the difficulty of living right when you’re told you’re wrong, when you wanna be wrong, and sometimes when you know you’re wrong. Striking poses, posturing at subjectivity without taking a shape. Coordinating a look, formless and composed, unraveling and stable. “Alan” is an answer, a small comfort, a love. No Shape can be at the same time a celebration of hard-won fixtures and a denial of fixity. So its strings scream and serenade, and its voices beg and coo. And then, after the loudness and without sounding like a retreat, No Shape vanishes. Walking into a vision of light, revealing itself to itself. Daring you to defy it and inviting you to join: “Go ahead.”

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