Perfume Genius Tests The Limits Of Queer Escapism On No Shape

The songwriter’s majestic fourth album gestures towards transcendence but is grounded in hard truths.

Photographer Cara Stricker
Perfume Genius Tests The Limits Of Queer Escapism On <i>No Shape</i> Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, at home in Tacoma, WA.  

On April 19, Mike Hadreas held a video Q&A on Twitter to promote his dazzling fourth album as Perfume Genius, titled No Shape. Hadreas’s pithy tweets have earned him a huge following on the platform — in The FADER’s recent cover story, he voiced a suspicion that many of his followers thought he was a comedian rather than a musician. As golden daylight streamed through a window, he filmed replies to questions ranging from the irreverent (“How many Diet Cokes have you had today?”) to the sincere (“5 female artists that have influenced you the most?”). At one point, a fan asked Hadreas to describe his new record in three words. “God,” the musician said, kissing his fingers and raising one skyward. “The devil,” he pointed down, “and me.”

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The 35-year-old Tacoma-based artist isn’t religious, though he has admitted to engaging in secular prayer. But his music has the reverence of any devotional, with songwriting that has often centered on the malevolent forces that prevent us from being at peace. The brittle piano ballads of his first album Learning told desperate tales of sexual abuse, sung with high-register vocals which often seemed to break under the weight of the songs’ subject matter. A follow-up, Put Your Back N 2 It, drew from Hadreas’s experiences of addiction to create a rough tapestry of queer life which refused to paper over the cracks. Music about tragedy can sometimes have a luxuriant sadness, but the plain, sharp language Hadreas used on the record provided a stark contrast to his embellished stage outfits, which often feature fluted flourishes and gilded trim. His third album Too Bright arrived in 2014 — a year before gay marriage was legalized in the U.S. — and coupled a more outwardly political defiance with a beefed-up sound, most notably on its stomping glam-rock centerpiece “Queen.”

Perfume Genius Tests The Limits Of Queer Escapism On <i>No Shape</i> Left: Hadreas (just seen) with his boyfriend Alan Wyffels, at their home in Tacoma, WA.  
Perfume Genius Tests The Limits Of Queer Escapism On <i>No Shape</i>

No Shape has a new concern. In songs that draw from baroque pop, widescreen soundscapes, and the subtle textures of neo-soul, Hadreas explores something we don’t hear about very often: the struggles and satisfaction of long-term queer love. For the past seven years, Hadreas has toured with his partner and keyboardist Alan Wyffels, who is a steady and sure presence in his live band. Each of the five times I’ve seen Perfume Genius live, Wyffels has joined Hadreas at the piano for a duet, often for 2010’s heartbreaking “Learning.” On stage, they speak in fond looks and shared smiles, communicating with intuitive ease. No Shape is preoccupied with the constant negotiation that intimacy like this requires. A minimal ballad which shares Wyffels’s first name describes the soothing warmth of the couple’s shared bed, while among delicate piano and harp on “Braid,” featured artist Weyes Blood joins Hadreas to implore, “Make my name lose it’s meaning/ And every harm is lovingly washed away.” Meanwhile, the gauzy Sade-inspired ballad “Die 4 You” darkly reflects on how being consumed by love can be bound up with self-annihilation; Hadreas has said it’s about autoerotic asphyxiation.

But Hadreas also widens the scope of No Shape beyond hearth and home, situating its personal narratives within the pressing political conflicts of today. He writes with specific understanding of the anxiety that LGBTQ folks might feel about encountering possible homophobia in public spaces. In the face of this, lead single “Slip Away” is resolute: “They’ll never break the shape we take/ Baby let all them voices slip away.” It’s a reminder that the ways in which people inhabit space in public can be an indicator of power and privilege. (Anyone who’s been stuck next to a “manspreading” dude on the train will know this to be true.) I’d love to be able to encourage queer folks to always move through the world fiercely and unapologetically. But sometimes it’s simply not safe, and at others it’s just stressful, especially for those of us who don’t live in liberal urban centers. In the album notes to 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It, Hadreas summarized this feeling as follows, in a description of the swelling “All Waters”: “Why are straight women always walking with their hands in the back pocket of their boyfriends’ jeans? Would I do that all the time too if I didn’t have to think about it? [...] I am almost embarrassed sometimes when [Wyffels and I] are holding hands, and that fucking infuriates me.”

Perfume Genius Tests The Limits Of Queer Escapism On <i>No Shape</i>
If Perfume Genius’s previous albums acknowledged the scars we bear from heteropatriarchy, this new record gestures towards how we might carve out space within it and flourish anyway.

It’s not hard to understand why any LGBTQ person would crave an escape. No Shape takes that impulse to extremes, with lyrics that speak to seeking freedom from the limitations of the physical human form. There’s an invitation to “wear me like a leather” on the haunted “Run Me Through,” and a longing to “hover with no shape” on the gorgeously expansive “Wreath.” Sentiments like these could be prompted by the realities of being a queer person in the world today — but perhaps they also speak to Hadreas’s personal struggle with his health. In his FADER cover story, the artist described living with Crohn’s Disease, which causes him frequent joint pain. “It’s just your body betraying you,” he said. Our bodies all deteriorate as we get older, and the struggle to look after ourselves without guaranteed healthcare is a vital issue for many. (For trans individuals, this can be an especially grave concern.) Hadreas’s desire for physical transcendence, therefore, isn’t just a punchline. It’s a very real response to how our bodies can become a site of conflict in the world today.

Against this backdrop, the lovers we choose and the homes we create can provide refuge, momentarily eluding the attitudes of a prejudiced society. In James Baldwin’s peerless 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, there’s a beautiful quote describing how domestic space can allow for a free expression of gay romance. “Life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea,” Baldwin wrote. “Time flowed past indifferently above us, hours and days had no meaning.” It’s a poetic image, but as Baldwin's protagonist finds out, and Hadreas recognizes, you can’t avoid reality forever. No Shape’s biggest strength is that it fully addresses this. If Perfume Genius’s previous albums acknowledged the scars we bear from heteropatriarchy, this new record gestures towards how we might carve out space within it and flourish anyway. “They’ll talk/ Give them every reason,” he sings on the wonderfully florid “Just Like Love.” It’s not always easy to find the strength to deal with cruel barbs or micro-aggressions from bigots. But for today, Hadreas has a solution: “Stare them down.”


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No Shape is out on May 5 via Matador.


Read The FADER's cover story on Perfume Genius here.


Perfume Genius Tests The Limits Of Queer Escapism On No Shape