With a lavishly orchestrated sound and hooks that leave you breathless, Mike Hadreas’s new album No Shape could be the one that puts him into the big leagues
After 35 years in his own body, Perfume Genius would very much like to be rid of it. “When I watch alien movies, I want to be the alien,” he says wistfully. “I don’t want to be the people that make first contact or anything, I just want to be that creature.”
There’s always been something a little other-worldly about Seattle-born Mike Hadreas – an intangible essence that suggests the singer-songwriter’s wired differently than most – but he’s too attuned to the complexity of human emotion to be truly alien. That’s not really the point though. It’s not that he wants to be from another planet, but that he gets “sort of sick of being a human. I feel like I have a lot of ideas, or things I want to feel or think about, (but) there’s a block, you know what I mean? I get to the end of something, and there’s a block...” He slices his hand down through the air in front of his face. “And it’s usually because I’m not smart enough or, you know, I didn’t drink enough water, so there’s not enough room in my brain to go further with that idea, and then I get annoyed.”
Today, Mike Hadreas is making do with his human form – draped in beige linen clothing, a light dusting of blusher on his cheeks, alternating between a pot of mixed berries and a vape in his room at London’s Ace Hotel. If it were possible, he’d settle for having no physical form at all. In “Wreath”, after which his astonishing new album No Shape takes its name, he sings wistfully, “Burn off every trace / I wanna hover with no shape / I wanna feel the days go by / Not stack up.” The song, he explains, is about “feeling kind of trapped in your body, trapped in the weird patterns that your brain’s constantly looping, that you just want to be free from. (It’s) a little bit about how you maybe only find that peace in death.” He laughs darkly, before adding, perhaps by way of reassurance, “I’m fairly dramatic.”
Before heading any further down this narrative of introspective despair – and Hadreas has plenty more where that came from – it’s worth pointing out that No Shape also contains moments of irradiant joy. Hadreas’ first two albums, released in 2010 and 2012, comprised mainly poignant, delicate piano ballads chronicling the aftershock of drug addiction and sexual abuse. He sang lines like, “Hold my hand, I am afraid,” with such exquisite fragility that you wanted to reach through the speakers and console him. 2014’s Too Bright flipped the script, his vulnerability crystallising into something like defiance. That discomfort with his own flesh and bones was there (“I wear my body like a rotted peach,” he sang in “My Body”), but much of his gaze was directed outwards, towards those who saw his very existence as a threat. “Don’t you know your queen?” he demanded in “Queen”, his voice quivering, this time with anger, “Cracked, peeling / Riddled with disease / Don’t you know me?” With No Shape, Hadreas explores what comes after the anger has passed. And that is a complicated and beautiful thing.
“That last album was a lot of singing at people,” explains Hadreas. “This album’s for me, it’s for (my boyfriend) Alan, it’s for my mom and all the people that listened to my music before. I think that anger felt useful then. It felt like something I’ve had for a very long time, and it came out in very weird ways, so I wanted to figure out a way to shift it, to use it as a power, to throw it back at people.” When he started writing this album, he assumed it would follow in the same vein, but “I didn’t feel close to it. I wasn’t pushing myself.” What he produced instead explored feelings that were more complicated, “and maybe more uncomfortable because I was so close to it. And sonically the same thing, opening up into a warmer, bigger thing felt more brave than making really dark, demonic shit.”
“When I watch alien movies, I want to be the alien. I don’t want to be the people that make first contact or anything, I just want to be that creature” – Perfume Genius
With orchestral flourishes and a lavish campness that evokes David Bowie’s Labyrinth soundtrack, No Shape is warmer and bigger than any album you’re likely to hear this year. It’s got hooks and melodies that leave you breathless, and periodically explodes into glistening shards of noise. There’s a warmth to its lyrics too. “Look, sometimes you forget / To just let me in a bit,” begins the Weyes Blood-featuring “Sides”, gently knocking on the defenses of a loved one. Still, the album’s lyrics keep returning to a corporeal discomfort: “Satin-matte my dewiness,” he sings on the smooth jazz inflected “Run Me Through”, “Skin so soft it sickens / Cut right through.”
“I’m just very self-conscious about the way I look,” he admits. “I really am embarrassed of it, because I wish I wasn’t like that. I don’t look at anyone else the way that I look at myself. It just can get really dark, and it feels so embarrassingly vain, to have such a heavy feeling about something that – in other people, and intellectually – I don’t really value. It’s like an endless loop of embarrassment and guilt and shame and like... it’s not fun.”
Elsewhere on the album though, he silences his insecurities by channeling the defiance of Too Bright. “Just Like Love”, whose opening is a whisper away from Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” and whose shimmering chorus feels like being bathed in sunlight, tackles similar themes to “Queen”, but with a shift in focus. “They’ll talk / Give them every reason / For child you walk / Just like love.” He’s not talking to the haters this time, but to himself, and people like him. “Do you know how many times it’s been recommended to me to ‘tone it down’ in order to reach more people,” he wrote in a tweet last year. “I never toned it up.”
Tone what down, exactly? “My femininity,” he answers, without a pause. “Straight up, that’s what it is. It’s not even my gayness, that’s not what they mean, that’s not what I’ve ever gotten shit for. It’s what they think are the feminine parts of me. And to be honest, if I did keep them a secret I probably would be more successful. Maybe if I was really good at hiding it, I would have. But I was so bad at it,” he laughs. “And it was so exhausting to me, having to walk around clenched fists and like, lumber around everywhere. I don’t know why I couldn’t do it. I’ve definitely met some people that cultivated a masculinity that they taught themselves, I don’t know how they figured out how to do it, but I couldn’t.” How long did he try? “Not very long. A couple of years maybe.”
“People think of banding together (against Trump) as a positive, but it’s in the face of violence and evil, so I don’t feel optimistic” – Perfume Genius
In 2017, there are fewer closeted boys lumbering their way through the world with clenched fists, but things are far from perfect. Last year, the US elected Donald Trump as its president, alongside a VP who’s openly advocated for gay conversion therapy. “I think the important thing is just to speak up for people and band together a little bit,” says Hadreas of this horrific new reality, though he refuses to look for redeeming factors where there are none. “I think a lot of people think of banding together as a positive, but it’s in the face of violence and evil, so I don’t feel optimistic. I don’t feel any positive, I don’t feel any hope from it. I feel like it’s only gonna get worse.” There are some – like Amanda Palmer – who insist that there’s a silver lining, that Trump’s election will bring people together and result in even better art. “Yeah,” he sighs, “but people are getting murdered in the street. I’d rather have something else bring us together.”
No Shape was written before the election. If it had been written afterwards, Hadreas says he might have written something different – though I suspect not. They say the personal is political, and No Shape is both. Its closing track, “Alan”, is sung to his boyfriend of eight years. “Did you notice / We sleep through the night?” he asks above a piano and the faintest murmur of strings. After all that anxiety, trauma and rage, the very idea of contentment is unsettling. “I’m here,” he sings, “How weird.”
“I guess I’m trying to set something up, even if I’m not there yet,” muses Hadreas. “Set up some sort of language and formula for existing. Do you know what I mean? Like, for truly existing, in my body, in the actual place I’m at now, with the actual loved ones I have around me.” If he can manage that, maybe he won’t want to be the alien anymore.