If someone asked me to qualify joy, to outline its shape and radiance, I’d point them to Perfume Genius‘ opening track “Otherside” from his 2017 album No Shape. At the outset, “Otherside” might seem like an odd choice. It starts quietly, almost hesitantly, with only a piano and singer Mike Hadreas’ constrained voice offering something close to a supplication: “Even your going / Let it find you,” he sings. “Even in hiding /Find it knows you.”
But the payoff comes at the 1:10-minute mark. Just when it sounds as though the song’s sparse nature will prevail, a glitter bomb detonates.
Hadreas has shape-shifted over the course of his five albums as Perfume Genius, arriving at an atmospheric baroque-pop that allows him to build scenes equal parts muscular and fragile. That central tension might seem overwhelming after a few tracks (the kind of feverish energy that makes it hard to watch Uncut Gems), but Hadreas never lets it run rampant. Rather than undoing his albums, the tension propels them.
Tension is something Hadreas knows well. Growing up, he was bullied for being gay, an external loathing that infiltrated the newly forming walls teenagers erect to construct their sense of self.
But it didn’t stop in high school. “There are all kinds of different things people do, from tiny little wound marks to straight up getting punched in the face,” Hadreas told Pitchfork‘s Jamie Fullerton in 2016. “Something like that hasn’t happened in a long time, though. It’s more getting called a faggot on the street. Or people laughing. The laughing really bugs me.”
Add to that, his longterm struggle with Chron’s disease, and it feels as though life has been an ongoing war, both internally and externally, with his body.
I suspect, though I don’t know for certain, that when the world restricts you in such pernicious ways, the celebratory moments become all the bigger. Something like that sentiment about the sweet not being as sweet without the sour, but less trite.
“Otherside” is the long-awaited explosion, the first of a one-two punch, which sets up the album’s second, exuberant track “Slip Away” in which Hadreas doesn’t just encourage but outright claims the visibility he and others have long been denied. “If we only got a moment / Give it to me now,” he sings before industrial, nearly-metallic drums rocket launch the song into a new orbit.
In a year filled with so much heaviness, feel for a moment the joy that exists beyond language—that is only sound and feeling and thrum. I’ll see you on the other side.