Sunday, May 21, 2017

album review: 'no shape' by perfume genius

So there's a critical preconception about singer-songwriters that the more layers of instrumentation they add, the less intimate their music is perceived. Now this is more observed on the flipside - that when artists strip things down they're working to intensify the closeness of their music - but I've always found it to be a bit of a misconception, and not really taking into account the music as a whole. Sure, when you strip things back to place all the emphasis on the singer, you can get that intimacy for sure, but just because the instrumentation becomes lush or more expansive doesn't mean the focus has to necessarily change - you just need a performer who can captivate with bigger emotions.

Enter Mike Hadreas, who sings under the moniker Perfume Genius. If you remember when I covered his absolutely incredible third record Too Bright back in 2014, I highlighted that despite being his most expansive record to date, he still managed to leverage his incredible intensity and charisma into a powerfully intimate experience - which is stunning considering how much that album held a mirror to the audience to confront discomfort with Hadreas' open sexuality while actively confronting the insecurities projected upon him. It was a powerful step that might have eschewed the direct storytelling of his previous records, but the combination of rich themes, potent vulnerability, and an incredible lead performance certainly won me over.

But what fascinated me was that instead of returning to raw, quieter material, Hadreas was going bigger. Buzz was suggesting that it was a more baroque record, with grander opulence in its tones and aiming for high decadence in its romance, and the second I started hearing comparisons to Kate Bush I knew I had to find some way to muscle this up the schedule so I could talk about it. So no more wasting time, considering this review is late already, what did we get with No Shape?

Okay, full disclosure - there was a part of me that was conditioned to be skeptical about this album, especially considering Hadreas had repeatedly shown that in more intimate spaces he could make some stunning music, and especially if he was opting for softer material I was genuinely worried it wouldn't be as interesting as Too Bright. And while I'm still debating a bit whether I like that record more... yeah, he did it again. No Shape is easily one of the best and most stunningly unique records of 2017, an album that deserves grand romantic language to describe it - you can tell some critics got to flex those creative writing degrees putting together reviews for this album - but at its core still manages to hold an intimate grasp of language and presence that on some level doesn't need all the grand exposition.

And that's actually a perfect place to start, tying into one of the biggest concerns that I had going into this record: the possibility that by going bigger and lighter and arguably more 'decadent', this album could skid towards camp, which would do a disservice to the raw intensity that has previously anchored Hadreas' albums. What's striking is that while this record does indulge in moments of instrumental excess - the explosion of chimes and heavenly choirs on 'Otherside', the swells of arranged strings and plucked elements, a filmy atmosphere that allows Hadreas' gorgeous falsetto soar on songs like 'Just Like Love', the plucked waltz cadence on the brittle acoustics of 'Valley' - they feel grounded because the core of the sound remains ragged and tight. Thrumming bass, either upright or electric, guitar tones that spark and smolder to supply a surprising amount of groove to songs aiming to soar, beats that shudder through unstable progressions like on 'Go Ahead', electric pianos on 'Die 4 You' that I'd swear picks up a tone I'd only ever describe as Ayreon-esque against the muffled guitars and stunning vocal overdubs - AWESOME - and all with production that never feels like it's wallowing in these exquisite tones. There is something grand and romantic about it, sure, but nothing here feels complacent or languid, mostly a factor of the tempo that of tracks like 'Slip Away' or the frenetic strings of 'Choir' that lets the guitar seethe just enough before the clanking, shuddering end, or especially 'Wreath' with that rock-solid melodic groove that easily makes it one of the most distinctive and potent songs Hadreas has ever assembled. And what's telling is that Hadreas is also willing to take a step back and make those intricate songs feel organic and intimate - the gorgeous touches of strings against the thrumming of upright bass on 'Every Night', the hints of cascading electric piano and plucks that hold 'Braid', and especially how 'Alan' uses its misty swell to end on a shared final moment more implied than stated. 

Hell, it's telling that the moment that feels the most garish is the collaboration with Weyes Blood called 'Sides', half because of that noisy flattened riff that opens the song before a deeper tap against the bass - it really does feel like two songs fused a bit haphazardly - but it's also because Hadreas is such a potent presence on this album he doesn't need added accompaniment. I'm still a little in awe of this guy as a performer: he lets his voice tremble and crack and warble, with multi-tracking that seems to accentuate his edges rather than smooth them, and yet for as raw and vulnerable as it can feel, he has such tremendous command of his atmosphere and intensity it is stunning. And what's incredible is that for as much as that intensity could overwhelm most of this material, it never does - there's nothing here that feels overwrought or forced, just relying on a seemingly bottomless well of natural charisma that allows him to make a song about erotic asphyxiation actually sound erotic!

So might as well move onto the content here... and again, like with Too Bright, thematically No Shape can be a little difficult to parse, partially because in contrast to some of the more ornate instrumentation, Hadreas' writing is so straightforward and direct - another way this record avoids camp. But another part of it is linked to a distinct spiritual angle that runs through this record right from the very beginning, finding and understanding a connection that flits out of reach of any corporeal form, a connection that transcends a body with which Hadreas, who has suffered from Crohn's Disease and addiction, has always struggled. It's a paradox - for as much as he strides forth to proclaim his security in his form in the face of any onlooker on 'Go Ahead' while on 'Just Like Love' he encourages others to do the same - songs like 'Valley' and 'Wreath' show his desire to go beyond it, transcend space and time. And yet when he reaches out into that untold space on songs like 'Every Night' and 'Choir', there's an insecurity in that unknown - whether it be nothing or something dark that he dare not articulate, he recoils. And what gets fascinating is how certain themes of reconciliation with that body return on the second half of this album - 'Sides' shows him playing the role of his boyfriend pleading for him to come down while Natalie Merling takes his part, highlighting the conflicting but very human questions and insecurities that still rage. And there is something telling how he describes songs linked to erotic asphyxiation and the visceral nature of sex and his own appetites on 'Run Me Through'... but he follow them with intimate plainspoken moments of tenderness on 'Braid' and especially 'Alan', a playful final moment where he considered hiding, or venturing beyond, but he stayed. And maybe that's the moment of shapeless transcendence is achieved - not in moving past the body but finding one's comfort within it against another, where the presence and atmosphere of love can lead to a connection so inexplicable it might seem like it comes from the other side, now all the more real.

Again, there's a part of me that's a little in awe of this record. The melodies are stunning, the production has heavenly swell and power while still never suffocating in decadence, and while Hadreas has always sought to reclaim the gaze on him, No Shape more than ever finds him accepting intimate comforts and harder truths that are anchored in a performance that yearns for it. It can be an intense listen, but the drama is justly earned by one of the most intensely compelling singers working today and songs that can be just as anthemic. In short, this is an incredible piece of music, netting a 9/10 from me and the highest of recommendations. Persona but universal, transcendent but intensely intimate and human, No Shape is spell-binding, and you need to hear it.

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