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Locked and Bodied: Perfume Genius’s No Shape

 

There are two ways for me to begin this piece: I discovered the music of Perfume Genius late, or I discovered the music of Perfume Genius at exactly the right time. I was working in a job where the only constant was my own exhaustion.

I was working for a public services agency, in a tiny disability policy unit that had an ongoing problem with staff turnover. When I started the job, there were three people doing the work of four people. My manager left a month after I started at the agency, and then there were two people doing the work of four people.  I could go entire days without taking breaks other than 30 minutes for lunch. As the lone junior staff member, I had a group of four empty cubicles to myself, while my boss had an office with a door.

I discovered that I could, with this excess of space, angrily pace to the music of my choice when the work got too overwhelming, or take quick breaks to lie down under my desk if there was time. There were more staff changes at the end of 2014; my boss left just after the department had hired a new manager. I began to see why there was such high turnover at this institution. However, I still believed in my workplace’s mission. I had worked so hard to get this job. What else could I do?

A music website that I read was constantly trumpeting openly gay musician Mike Hadreas’s 2014 album as Perfume Genius, Too Bright, as one of the best albums of the year. So, at work one day as I was running between my desk and the photocopier in order to get a bunch of copies made as soon as possible; oh, wait, we need them NOW, I listened to the album, not knowing what to expect.  Several sweeping keyboard washes and the quietly powerful boom of Hadreas singing “I can see for miles” into opening track “I Decline” later, however, I was all in.

Too Bright’s “big hit,” at least in the indie world, was its second track, “Queen,” which turns the logic of conservative family values into a statement of queer pride; who can hear Hadreas sing “No family is safe, when I sashay” and not feel moved? I certainly did; “Queen” became my anthem for an increasingly untenable work situation. I tried to balance self-care—you need to when you have a health condition like fibromyalgia, which causes, in my case, moderate to severe pain and fatigue—with getting as much work finished as I could. Many days, I would take on work that I felt I had not been fully trained to do—not because I wanted to prove myself as ambitious, as a young and scrappy go-getter, but because there was so much to do and not enough people to do it.

And so “Queen” became my new angrily pacing in my cubicle corner song; I couldn’t scream from all of the pressure, all of the rage I felt at myself for letting this get to me instead of just buckling down and doing all of the work, or for having to put work ahead of my increasingly poor health; however, I had Mike Hadreas to scream for me. I let the falsetto yell from “Queen” be my yodel of frustration, which (fortunately) no one else could hear.

My Body,” which is apparently about Hadreas’s struggle with Crohn’s disease, was one of the other songs on Too Bright that grabbed me instantly. The song starts with an eerily syncopated verse that, with time, bursts into a guitar feedback screech and Hadreas’s insistent falsetto of “I WEAR MY BODY LIKE A ROTTED PEACH/YOU CAN HAVE IT IF YOU HANDLE THE STINK,” sounding more than a little bit like he’s handling guest vocal duties for mid-1990s Nine Inch Nails. Every song on Too Bright is memorable; while it is more slickly produced than Hadreas’s two previous albums, the wry turns of phrase, pop-inflected melodies, and keyboard/piano prowess were constants. Hadreas’s earlier albums, Learning (2010) and Put Your Back N 2 It (2012) consisted of experimental, piano-based character sketches that, to my ear, sounded like Southern Gothic stories set to ghostly piano from another room. On Too Bright there are almost too many great songs to name: the shimmery, unsettling “Longpig,” the creeping “I’m a Mother” which may or may not be referencing the PJ Harvey song with a similar title, and the vampy “Fool.”

The assignments piled up at my job, five days a week. I kept my headphones on and my work ethic a little too good. I often had weird metaphorical images get stuck in my head; in one, I stood on a beach made entirely of white printer paper: the sand, the waves, the skinny trees, the clouds and sun. When the waves of paperwork threatened to overwhelm me (and it almost never stopped) I would switch on Too Bright and be transported, at least for a few minutes.

Colleagues in other departments would comment on my productivity, or how I was “always by myself” in the cubicles. I was always by myself because I needed to be productive. This productivity came at a cost; many days, I would get home around 5 PM, eat a quick dinner, and be out cold before 9. If you have a chronic illness and aim to be traditionally “productive,” your body pays the price; if you’re “doing [productivity] right,” as a chronically ill person, few people will see your body pay that price.

Our unit did get two more staff members, but the amount of work was still overwhelming much of the time. I left the agency at the end of 2015.

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Perfume Genius’s new album, No Shape, was released earlier this month. It’s an astonishing piece of work, and no song on the album captures this like opening track “Otherside”—which starts as a light piano number and nearly explodes with beauty at the chorus. Music critic James Rettig, writing for Stereogum, described this crowning moment of musical genius as “a burst of glittery noise and chimes and a choir of angels” coming at you through your headphones or speakers.

If Too Bright was confrontational in its strangeness, then No Shape is its celebratory sibling. No Shape’s status as the most experimental Perfume Genius album so far coexists nicely with its pop sensibilities—tracks like “Slip Away,” “Just Like Love” and the plaintive ballad “Braid” balance out some of the more kitchen-sink tendencies throughout the album’s 43-minute run time. This is not to say that Hadreas and producer Blake Mills should have approached this album with more restraint.

Many of the experimental components on No Shape–from the aching, frantic violin line of “Choir,” to the processed vocals that haunt the backing tracks of some of the songs, to the unlikely string sections that pop up throughout—work better in practice than in abstract principle. If I were to try to sell you on this album, I probably would not use the descriptor “overstuffed” as a positive, but at the same time—that is exactly how No Shape sounds. Overstuffed, overwhelming, but fantastically and exuberantly so.

Hadreas’s conflict with his body is still there, and he writes about it beautifully on the synth-heavy, poppy (and Kate Bush-referencing) “Wreath”:

Running up that hill
I’m gonna peel off every weight
Until my body gives away
And shuts up

The problem—which I and many people with chronic pain have learned, often repeatedly—is that you cannot outrun your own body or make it shut up, no matter how much you may want to. The twin themes of wanting a healthy home life and simultaneously wanting to escape one’s troublesome, ill body are wound throughout No Shape; the unique ways in which Hadreas explores these themes make No Shape a standout lyrically and musically.

As expansive and darkly cinematic as No Shape is, it’s not a sad album, and it will make you think even as you hum along. There are moments of levity on No Shape; on final track “Alan,” named for Hadreas’s partner Alan Wyffels, Hadreas muses “I’m here / How weird” when confronted with various moments of “normal” domesticity. But there’s also room for great joy in the world of No Shape; one must only watch Hadreas’s performance of “Slip Away” on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert to realize this. Hadreas, clad in a dark blue suit, cheeks and eyes flushed with pink Ziggy Stardust-esque makeup, absolutely owns that stage. He may want to “slip away” from his body, but Hadreas is, just as importantly, inviting listeners into his world that is all at once filled with beauty and pain, with happiness and frustration.

Photo: Reuben Strayer/Creative Commons