What do we talk about when we talk about soul? Not the style of music or the friendly ghost that lives inside you, but the ineffable quality, the characteristic. In dance, in food, in music, in a person—we know it when we see it. But what is soul?
Soul is the spark that flies from the friction between joy and suffering. It’s the light of life cast in noble, futile defiance against the inevitable darkness that awaits us all. It’s a depth of feeling that contains multitudes, rendered with visceral immediacy. Soul is that confounding, cathartic urge to cry when you’re happy and sing when you’re sad. More often than not, it results from surviving pain and persecution. Music helps us collectively acknowledge these truths and transform them into something powerful and universal.
No Shape, the fourth album by Tacoma-dwelling Mike Hadreas under the name Perfume Genius, exudes exactly this sort of soul. It resonates as a beautiful crystalline chord struck with delicate precision and, simultaneously, a grandiose, elaborate opera thick with overflowing emotions. Hadreas’ last album, 2014’s Too Bright, was a strident statement of purpose as an openly queer artist barnstorming the mainstream, a fearless warning shot directed at an unsuspecting—and historically unsympathetic—public. No Shape plays more like a personal reconciliation, Hadreas settling into a tentative understanding with a world still skeptical of his legitimate place within it. No Shape feels every bit as bold as Too Bright—in its unbridled embrace of hope and health and self, perhaps even more so.
“How long must we live right/before we don’t even have to try?” Hadreas sings on “Valley.” Earlier in life, he might’ve spit that line as a curse against a rigidly heteronormative status quo. Instead he lofts it gently as a rhetorical reminder of regressive stubbornness and stupidity. And there it hovers, buoyed by acoustic guitars harmonized in an open tuning, radiant strings lifting alongside, almost carefree. A sublime breeze of tiny melodies and dramatic changes, “Valley” is the most beautiful three minutes of music I’ve heard this year.
The world hasn’t gotten easier for queer folks; rather something inside Hadreas has shifted, and No Shape extends the transformation outward into the universe. Throughout the album, backed alternately by regal strings, electronic drums, filtered guitars, harpsichord, bells, occasional backing vocals and all manner of inscrutable sonics, Hadreas bucks at the confines of physical form, aching to disappear into a pure and immaterial realm.
“Don’t hold back” he sings on “Slip Away,” the album’s ecstatic first single, his voice a burnished instrument, “I wanna break free/god is singing through your body/and I’m carried by the sound.” Later, on the devastatingly quiet, organ-driven “Die 4 U,” he assures a distant love, “I’m there in spirit/each and every breath I spend/you are collecting.” Soul requires a human body as a receptacle for experience. But ultimately it longs to transcend.