Mike Hadreas’ fourth album under his Perfume Genius moniker is his most generous yet, in both runtime and open-heartedness. It marks the latest bold step in an artist’s evolution from modest beginnings in the world of lo-fi, intensely personal songwriting to his current standing as a creator of grandly ambitious, unapologetically kitsch art-pop. It also completes an emotional journey from a place of isolated despair to unexpected contentment.

----------------------

“No one will answer your prayers/
Until you take off that dress/
No one will hear all your crying/
Until you take your last breath.”

Those are the words with which Hadreas introduced himself on his 2010 debut, Learning. They’re pretty representative of the tone of that album: unbearably bleak, discomfortingly cruel, but, above all, compassionately human. Learning was clearly not a record written and performed by a happy man. It’s a difficult listen; the aural equivalent of watching Todd Solondz’s Happiness. Recorded in his mother’s home after an extended period of aimlessness and substance abuse, Learning is all skeletal piano, clean melodic lines, brief simple song structures, the occasional synth-drone, and atop it all, Hadreas’ quavering voice singing his devastating lyrics, which jabbed and tugged and unsettled with the painful specificities of the stories they told. The album is so personal in its intent and so raw in its execution it could be classified as outsider art for the MySpace generation.

On his follow up, 2012’s amusingly, incongruously titled Put Ur Back N 2 It, Hadreas let a little light in, upped the production values and expanded his sonic repertoire, creating a near-masterpiece of hair-raising emotional evocation. Highlights are too many mention here, but that moment when the full band joins in on album standout, ‘Hood’, feels like Hadreas kicking the door down and announcing himself.

But if ‘Hood’ was Hadreas kicking the door down, then ‘Queen’, the lead single from 2014’s Too Bright and undisputed song of that year (if not the decade), was him blowing up the whole fucking house. It marked the moment when Perfume Genius stopped being merely a deeply personal project for the similarly put-upon and outcast to find solace in, and became a force for social change, a creator of nothing less than a definitive LGBT anthem. The general consensus around Too Bright was that it signaled the true arrival of the Perfume Genius project, and it’s not hard to see why. It bristles with confidence and seethes with anger. Collaborating with Portishead’s Adrian Utley and PJ Harvey producer John Parish saw Hadreas develop a sound that suited his new-found songwriting ambition to a tee. Hadreas could have been excused for treading water for his follow up and exploring said sound for another half hour or so. It would have been great.

Credit to Hadreas then for not doing that. Sure, a lot of No Shape has its antecedent in previous Perfume Genius songs, but this new record works both as a summation of the project so far, as well as a distinct progression. The baseline Perfume Genius song, Hadreas’ default setting shall we say, is the sparse piano ballad. Besides tape hiss, or breathing, the first sound on every Perfume Genius album is produced by an isolated piano, with his brittle voice coming next. And No Shape doesn’t deviate from this MO. No surprises then. Until the 1:11 mark that is, when an immense, M83-esque blast of spectral noise jolts the listener from the lull created by that repeating, descending piano line. It’s a trick Hadreas pulls twice, and then the song’s over. So much, so slight, but the tone’s been set.

Lead single, ‘Slip Away’, aka the best song Kate Bush never wrote, is not only a defiant call to ignore the haters (consider it Hadreas’ ‘Shake It Off’), but draws attention to a driving force behind the album’s entire aesthetic in Hadreas’ line about being “carried by the sound.” From those sonic supernovas in ‘Otherside’, to the spectacular cacophony of the closing moments of ‘Slip Away’, to the swooning strings of ‘Just Like Love’, to the transcendent yodelling on the coda of de facto title track, ‘Wreath’; this is an album in thrall to pure sound. Props to Blake Mills, because this is a stunningly produced album, front-to-back.

Where Too Bright was often cold, stark, mechanical and dark as tar (as was befitting the record’s palpable anger), No Shape is warm, technicolour, alive and filled with light. Take ‘Just Like Love’; Someone listening to the high school abuse/suicide ditty, ‘Mr Peterson’, back in 2010 would never have imagined that the same artist would someday produce something so unabashedly kitsch and lushly romantic. Rob Moose’s string arrangements on this track and on the likes of ‘Valley General’ (a song which does more with three chords than most artists manage on entire albums), lend No Shape a sense of old Hollywood charm, that stands in sharp contrast to the Lynchian drones that used to menacingly smother certain Perfume Genius songs.

Those strings aren't always used to induce a sense of starry eyed wonder or longing wistfulness, as on 'Every Night’ (a brief, atmospheric piece which takes the Perfume Genius default mode and ups the beauty factor by a startling degree). They are also put to unsettling use on ‘Choir’; the muffled vocal distortion effect from Too Bright’s most disturbing cut, 'I Am A Mother’ makes a return, accompanied by anxious, scraping strings. The song disorientates as a result, but does not outstay its welcome. It brings to mind the work of Hadreas’ erstwhile roommate, Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart, if he were backed by He Poos Clouds era Owen Pallett. A winning combination in this reviewer's book.

No Shape, more than any previous Perfume Genius album, sees Hadreas adopt a variety of musical guises, wherein the influence of a specific artist is palpable, be it Prince on 'Go Ahead', or Cocteau Twins on 'Wreath’, or Spirit of Eden-era Talk Talk on 'Run Me Through’, or the aforementioned Kate Bush. And then there's ‘Die 4 U’, Hadreas’ biggest genre digression and a clear tribute to Sade’s particular brand of sensual, dinner party RnB. Beyond Hadreas’ revelatory vocal performance here, the strange juxtaposition of Morcheeba-esque trip hop drums with those eerie, distorted, backing vocals on the back half of the track turns ‘Die 4 U’ into fascinatingly, (and ironically) uneasy listening.

The key takeaway from this is that Hadreas has opened up his sonic world more than ever before, enough even to let his first guest performer, Weyes Blood, sashay imperiously into the fray on the slinky and dramatic 'Sides’. Hadreas shows time and time again that he is willing to take ever greater risks, striding out of his comfort zone to not only emulate his greatest influences, but to mutate their sound and build upon their work. That Prince-channeling song, 'Go Ahead’, is a bedroom jam the likes of which only Perfume Genius could produce. The funk guitar is almost strangled into submission. You could only “get busy” to the song if you have a fetish for the kind of randomised beatmaking that Autechre would deal in on that most alien of IDM albums, Confield. 'Run Me Through’ bears traces of Talk Talk mastermind Mark Hollis in the wavering vocal phrasing and in the strange lilt of that organ, but Hadreas takes it somewhere else entirely with the celestial mid-section of the track, which echoes a similar structural trick employed on Too Brights 'Fool’.

On album closer ‘Alan’, Hadreas’ composition recalls Majical Cloudz at their most affecting. Like Devon Welsh, Mike Hadreas possesses the kind of voice that instantly sells the emotional core of any song, and on ‘Alan’ the production rivals anything in Matthew Otto’s repertoire. The patented Angelo Badalamenti drone makes a reappearance, augmented by Rob Moose’s strings, and Hadreas sings a song that details the apparently unexpected happiness he has found in a shared life of mutual love and co-dependence with his partner and chief musical collaborator, Alan Wyffels.

Several of No Shape’s songs appear to address Wyffels directly (most notably ‘Slip Away’ and ‘Die 4 U’), and it’s genuinely affecting to hear the surprise in Hadreas’ words when he asks whether his lover has noticed that they sleep through the night now, and that everything is alright. It’s the sound of a man taking stock of where he came from compared to where he is now, of a man who appeared lost for so long, having now discovered confidence and purpose in the art he creates as a means to empower and console others, and having found comfort and contentment in the man he shares his life with. “How weird…”, he sings, as the finest album of his career draws to a close.