It hits you like a punch — this aural glitterbomb in the middle of the first track on Perfume Genius’s extraordinary new album, No Shape. Up until then, “Otherside” has been just a wisp of a song: some notes plinked out on the far right side of a piano and the mew of Mike Hadreas’s voice. “Rocking you to sleep,” he sings, with the melancholy of an old lullaby, “from the other side.” And then: BAM! The song explodes into a cascade of synths, chimes, and choral exhales, as if all the feeling and intensity of the Cure’s “Plainsong” had been compressed into 10 impossibly loud seconds of sound. It took the breath right out of my chest the first time I heard it; the sheer gale force of its beauty almost knocks you over. Euphoria can do that, and what Hadreas expresses throughout No Shape is the very peculiar and often unspoken truth that joy (especially when it comes unexpectedly, and after a long struggle) can often, at first, be every bit as violent as its opposite.
Hadreas started making stark, haunting music under the name Perfume Genius about a decade ago, when he was living outside Seattle. His first album, Learning, came out in 2010. Its most memorable song was “Mr. Peterson,” a disconcertingly pretty ballad about a high school teacher having a sexual relationship with a student and then dying by suicide. Which is to say that from the beginning, Perfume Genius has not been for the faint of heart. In all of Hadreas’s music, the banal stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the tragic, the sacred with the profane. “He made me a tape of Joy Division / he told me there was part of him missing,” he sings of Mr. Peterson, “when I was 16 / he jumped off a building.”
A similar tension animated his excellent second album, Put Your Back N 2 It, which features, among other things, a title track with the saddest delivery of that phrase ever uttered in popular music. But the standout from that record was a bracing, two-minute song called “Hood,” in which Hadreas hinted at but never exposed the kinds of dark secrets that threaten the acceptance of intimacy. “You would never call me baby / if you knew me truly,” he crooned. Also: “Underneath this hood you kiss / I tick like a bomb.” “Hood” was a piano-pop song with something sinister hidden beneath its floorboards; its melody was so familiarly soulful that it seemed to gesture toward the idea that even the most traditionally “romantic” love songs also have a darker edge. The most threatening demons in Hadreas’s songs are usually internal, though when “Hood” was released as a single it unwittingly became an example of the ways that the external world had contributed to the kinds of pain and isolation he sings about. The simple, tender music video featured the late Hungarian porn star Arpad Miklos embracing Hadreas, brushing his hair, and doing his makeup; although there was no sexual content in the video, YouTube banned it because it was not “family safe.” It’s hard to imagine a video depicting a heterosexual couple doing such boring, everyday things raising an eyebrow, let alone getting pulled from YouTube.
Family Safe would have been an apt (if caustic) title for the new Perfume Genius album, since it is a record in part about the process of taming the unruly forces of love and lust into some semblance of domesticity. (The final song on the album, “Alan,” is named for Hadreas’s partner of eight years, and its first lyric marvels, “Did you notice / we sleep through the night?”) But No Shape is a better name for it: These songs are constantly warping and wriggling free from any imaginable constraints. The minimalist funk of “Go Ahead” briefly takes a few pauses to — why not — become a cloud of ambient noise, and when it returns to its original form the whole thing somehow makes sense as a single song. “Sides,” a great duet with the bewitching singer Weyes Blood, undergoes a similar metamorphosis, when midway through it ditches its lead guitar lick (which sounds like it’s channeling Prince from the beyond) and becomes a moody, almost new-agey ballad.
If Hadreas’s music feels especially intimate, it’s because it’s often been an outpouring of his own struggles. He started working on his first album, Learning, shortly after getting out of rehab; by the time it finally came out, nearly five years later, he had relapsed. Alan helped him get clean and sober, though, which they’ve both maintained as long as they’ve been together. No Shape is, according to a recent profile in The Fader, Hadreas’s attempt to make “a grown-up album about life after you’ve trudged through the trauma.” It’s a harder-earned happy ending than most. That partly has to do with the extreme emotions of his past (“When you are a drug addict and alcoholic,” Alan said in that Fader profile, “you function in crisis mode all the time”), but also because, unfortunately, ours is a culture in which happily-ever-after queer stories are relatively rare. As the journalist Alex Frank wrote in that profile, Perfume Genius’s music is “a radical departure from the kind of portrayals of LGBTQ life that we’re used to hearing about … It might not be as dramatic to survive, but it also means you get to not die.”
There’s plenty of drama in these songs, though. A few of the best ones (“Wreath,” or the ecstatic lead single “Slip Away”) are set at a tempo just above a sprint, like they were written to soundtrack that part in a movie where the new lovers break off from the crowd and run as fast as they can to somewhere private and idyllic. (Also: Rare is the song that earns its lyrical name check to Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” but “Wreath” totally pulls it off.)
The video for “Slip Away” (directed by Andrew Thomas Huang, who shot several of Björk’s Vulnicura videos) is a perfect visual accompaniment to this album: a colorful, pastoral swirl of passion, pursuit, and release. (Coincidentally, or maybe because Hadreas’s companion in this video is a woman, the video did not get into any trouble with YouTube.) There’s a strain of revisionist nostalgia to both the video (it kind of looks like a play that the friends of a Romantic poet might put on in his parlor) and the sound of No Shape itself. It’s an attempt to write a happy ending in a world that has denied so many people of an opportunity for one, simply because of the way they look or who they love. Hadreas’s songs are heavy with the weight of ghosts — the Mr. Petersons and the Arpad Mikloses — but he has found a way to honor them while carving out a path forward, toward previously unimaginable things like happiness, family, and safety. “I’m here, how weird,” he sings on the last song, as a simple, poignant acceptance of hard-won joy. It’s something truly powerful that he’s pulled off with this, his best record. That it is awake to the ugliness in the world only makes it more forceful in its beauty.