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Perfume Genius Is Still Figuring Out How To Be In Love

Eight years into his relationship, Perfume Genius' Mike Hadreas says, "it still doesn't feel intuitive. It always feels sort of strange and almost mystical."
Courtesy of the artist
Eight years into his relationship, Perfume Genius' Mike Hadreas says, "it still doesn't feel intuitive. It always feels sort of strange and almost mystical."

A rock star makes it big, gets hooked on substances and lands in rehab. The rest of the artist's career is viewed as a comeback. Recognize this pattern? Well, Mike Hadreas, the heart of the band Perfume Genius, is a rock star in reverse — because his career started in rehab.

Hadreas' first three albums explored the dark places that led him to addiction. But his new album, No Shape, is about life after recovery. He makes that quite literal on the opening track, "Otherside." Soft piano plays and Hadreas' voice quivers almost unintelligibly, a reference to his earlier albums. Then the piano fades, and he reaches the line "rocking you to sleep from the other side." Suddenly the music bursts into shimmering waves of synthetic chimes. It's the first sign that Hadreas has found a new voice.

Eight years ago, Hadreas moved back in with his mother, started going to AA, and made friends with other 20-nothings in recovery. One them was Alan Wyffels. Hadreas and Wyffels tell NPR's Rachel Martin that they were immediately charmed by each other, but neither was willing to make a move. Instead, they made music.

Wyffels, who is a classically trained musician, swears that Hadreas was "trying to seduce" him by inviting him over to workshop songs. Hadreas doesn't deny it. He just laughs. But soon the masks came off, and the two found themselves holding hands in a screening of The White Ribbon and sharing a kiss over ham sandwiches at a Quality Food Center. Now, almost a decade later, Wyffels still performs alongside Hadreas as the only other original member of Perfume Genius.

No Shape centers around Hadreas' relationship with Wyffels now. There are moments where Hadreas has evidently found liberation in their relationship. "Die 4 You," a song that hearkens to early Sade, uses erotic asphyxiation as a metaphor for feeling safe. (The irony is palpable.) Other times, the past creeps up on him. In the song "Valley" he ponders, "How long must we live right before we don't even have to try?"

For Hadreas, the past is always collapsing on the present — but the new music makes clear that he's coping with that differently now. Where once it led him to make morose music, he's found a newly lighter, brighter sound, and he says that's intentional.

"It seems like things are better," he says. "And I guess I feel bratty that I don't always feel that way a lot of the time. And so I wanted a lot of the songs to be more gentle and kind, and try to connect."

Nowhere is that clearer than on the album's lead single, "Slip Away," perhaps the most defiant rock anthem in recent memory. On the hook, Hadreas' voice grounds the swirling guitars and pounding drums as he sings, "Don't look back / I want to break free / If you never see them coming / You never have to hide."

The song, he says, is about "stealing the warmth and goodness regardless of what's going on outside or in your own head, just taking it anyway." For someone whose previous work focused on struggles with depression and body image, it's liberating to hear him find a way to, at least for a moment, cast those troubles aside.

Central to Hadreas' music is the fact that, unlike many other gay artists over the years, he writes explicitly about being in love with someone of the same sex. Where Sam Smith or Troye Sivan write genderless lyrics, Hadreas makes it known he loves a man. He's become a beacon for young queer kids, and Wyffels says he watches them come up to Hadreas after shows and say so.

"I just feel like they are hearing someone sing about the things that they have felt their whole life and never heard anybody else say," Wyffels says. "I feel like one of [Hadreas'] goals as a musician is to kind of be the artist that he wished he could have had as a young gay man."

No Shape closes with "Alan," a love song with a twist. Over a bed of reverberating piano and echoing strings, reminiscent of a hymn, Hadreas sings, "Did you notice we sleep through the night / Did you notice, babe, everything's all right / You need me, rest easy / I'm here, how weird." With that, Hadreas invites listeners into the intimate moments of queer love rarely portrayed in pop culture. And eight years into his relationship, he says, he's still figuring out how to be in love.

"When Alan is asleep, and my dog is asleep, looking at them pulls me into it for a second, being grateful," Hadreas says. "It still doesn't feel intuitive. It always feels sort of strange and almost mystical." Until now, queer music has been largely about the struggle of finding that sort of security. Hadreas' music represents a new challenge, in which two men must now map out how to live within that security.

In the end, it comes as no surprise that a queer rock star might upend the addiction-to-recovery narrative we've come to know about rock musicians. No Shape revels in discovering how to love oneself and another. From the sound of it, there's no substance that can replace that kind of euphoria.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barton Girdwood