Owen Pallett on the Defiance of Intimacy in Perfume Genius’s No Shape

"Mike rides his piano bench like a white horse into a hostile town, with his middle finger raised."

There’s an opening arpeggio, and Mike Hadreas quavers tentatively. We’re next to him on the piano bench. We think we know what’s coming, but then “Otherside” explodes in a magical cacophony, a fitting introduction to his newest album under the name Perfume Genius, No Shape. I’ve been struck by Perfume Genius’s aesthetic progression to date—the one-piano, four-mittened-hands sound of the first two brilliant albums, 2010’s Learning and 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It, brutalized into new shapes with the assistance of producer Adrian Utley on Perfume Genius’s third brilliant album, Too Bright. But what new confidence is this?

Mike ululates like no one else. He incorporates oohs and ay-ee-ay-ee-ays mid-sentiment, stretching each delicious lyric out like melted cheese. Compared to the previous records, this album is infinitely more whimsical and gleefully overwritten, strings traipse, cymbals are delicately hard-panned, drums shuffle and stutter. These production decisions ease the heft of Mike’s ten-ton lyrical weight—on “Go Ahead,” he sings “say a little prayer for me” and invites Dionne Warwick into his own song, whereas on previous records a line asking for “a little prayer” might have been taken literally.

When the first single “Slip Away” debuted, by my internal critical response was simple: All the right decisions are being made. This sentiment persists upon hearing the album as a whole. Every instrument is recorded interestingly; the short length of these songs suggest control and economy; drums and strings are arranged pleasingly in a way that makes me say, This is exactly how this album should’ve been made. The strings, in particular, are extremely well-arranged, performed, and recorded, the highlight of which arrives in an intense arpeggiated viola on the song “Choir,” which sounds like John Cale having extremely satisfying sex with somebody after an extremely satisfying day at the studio.

I scan down the track list, and there’s a song called “Alan”? I get emotional. When Perfume Genius first appeared in 2010, Mike and Alan sat together at the piano, played it together, and sang together. When I met them, while they were touring Put Your Back N 2 It, they politely declined any alcohol; instead, Mike smoked menthols with me outside, drinking can after can of Diet Coke. I learned through their interviews of their respective struggles with addiction, meeting through AA programs, subsequent romance and partnership. Perfume Genius, touring those first two albums, felt as much like a support group as it did a concert—the two of them together celebrating their recovery by existing simply, each propping the other upright. They remain partners, both in love and in music.

I press play on “Alan.” Writing songs for one’s lover, when one’s lover is also involved in the artistic process, is some fourth-wall meta-narrative excitement. It feels deliciously transgressive and convention-shattering, whether it’s tenor Pears and composer Britten, or Carter and Knowles. Although: It must be reaffirmed over and over that the songwriter’s lyric is malleable; the life one sings need not be the life one lives. The facts crumble and become fictional in the musical process, and somehow universal and more true as fictions. It is thus so dissonant and brilliant whenever the songwriter sings the name of his wife, her husband, his daughter or her son, or themselves.

Mike sings: “Did you notice / we sleep through the night?” Do you fuckers have any idea how valuable this feeling is? Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find that person who can allay the anxiety that accompanies queerness, to even allow a faggot to get a full night’s sleep? Do you have any idea whatsoever? The marches, the breaking up families with one’s sashay, the confident screams and confetti cannons, the beautiful bodies, it’s all just a front? Do you have any idea? To project confidence and facility into a world that would judge us? That we have to fight for even the slightest bit of understanding and empathy from a predominantly hetero audience? Do you have any comprehension about how much Mike means it when he sings this song?

He sings: “I’m here / I’m weird.” Queers and women are criticized more abruptly for perceived technical shortcomings in their musicianship—the fact that a girl or a queer can “shred” is still remarked upon with a measure of surprise. As a result of decades (centuries?) of this critical response, non-straights and non-men have felt a need in their music making to prove themselves, to demonstrate facility, so as to be taken seriously.

Mike rides his piano bench like a white horse into a hostile town, with his middle finger raised in defiance. At its heart, Perfume Genius has always been an exercise in not giving a shit about your gaze or your judgements. I have been challenged to check my own reflexive reactions in the past, whether confronted with the fragile delicacy of his early performance practice, the G-A-Y usage of male porn stars or suicidal protagonists in his videos, but it’s clear that Perfume Genius doesn’t give a shit about my baggage, or even yours.

The confidence on this album is not about Mike proving anything to anyone, but about buttressing and strengthening his own tumble into the personal, into the abject. The recklessness is wall-busting. As Perfume Genius continues to remain undefined by our gaze, No Shape is the truest one for him to have taken.

Owen Pallett makes albums, writes chamber music and film music, and is an active collaborator and arranger with a diverse array of bands and musicians. He is currently finishing his fifth album for Domino Records.