Album Review: Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

[Matador; 2020]

The music Mike Hadreas has been making as Perfume Genius over the past 10 years has never exactly been short on feeling. One listen to his quiveringly fragile voice on any one of the songs he has released, from his 2010 debut until now, would serve as ample indication that this is an artist who is unafraid of exposing his listeners to the darkest and most intimate recesses of his mind. With precision-engineered songwriting and tastefully restrained musical adornments, he is preternaturally capable of cutting straight to the emotional quick. At times, it has felt like he couldn’t possibly give anymore of himself.

On Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Hadreas is, as the greedily and sensuously impatient imperative of its title makes clear, finally demanding more feeling, more experience, more of everything, for himself – and the results make for a revelatory listen.

Of course, revelation is nothing new when it comes to Perfume Genius. Hadreas is the rare artist whose trajectory always seems to be reaching its peak, only for the next project to wrestle itself free of gravity’s rainbow and astonish listeners all over again. He has evolved from the bare-bones, open-veined piano confessionals of his early releases, to making families feel unsafe with glam-rock sashays and invocations of bodily disgust on Too Bright, to blossoming on the soft-focus, high-romantic No Shape. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, for its part, feels like a culmination and natural progression of all that has come before.

Rekindling the fruitful collaboration with producer Blake Mills that gave No Shape its distinctive character, Mike Hadreas and his romantic and musical partner Alan Wyffels have created a knotty album of contrasts: it’s alternatingly dream-like and muscularly concrete; by turns abstractly weird and thoroughly accessible. While No Shape luxuriated in the 80s art-pop of Kate Bush and Cocteau Twins, as well as the sensuality of Sade and Prince, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately finds many of its touchstones in the Great American Songbook of the 50s, 60s and 70s, recast, of course, in Hadreas’ defiantly queer image. 

There are also traces of balearic rhythms, of doo-wop ballads and baroque chamber music, and, in the album’s transcendent peak, “On The Floor”, of glistening dance-pop. Then there are also moments of near-Lynchian dread, as Hadreas variously employs his lower vocal registers, and the music slows to a murky crawl. All of this makes for a dense, sometimes challenging, but ultimately patience-rewarding listen.

Instant classic Perfume Genius opener “Whole Life” is a Roy Orbison-esque ballad that finds the 38-year-old Hadreas taking stock. “Half of my whole life is gone,” he sings wistfully, before concluding that, “it was just a dream.” In point of fact, the entirety of Set My Heart On Fire Immediately plays as if it is at the mercy of the faulty logic of a dream. The album flits between styles like the stray firing of synapses, and the word “dream” appears far too many times across the record’s lyric sheet for it not to be intentional. 

Dream-like associations and juxtapositions are constantly being made; “Describe”, for one, is ostensibly a ballad about Hadreas being unable to recognise happiness and asking his lover to describe it to him. And yet, his understated vocals are set to what sounds like peak 90s Sheryl Crow, smothered liberally in shoegaze guitars. Sonically, it functions as a kind of dissociation from the self, as well as a thrilling recalibration of the parameters of the Perfume Genius sound. The effect is so disorientating that the song requires a 90-second ambient coda just to give us time to recover.

The multi-part, penultimate track, “Some Dream”, is similarly bewildering-yet-utterly-addicting. Its gnarled guitar parts, trilling piano accents and climactic psych-rock explosion represent the album’s final cathartic release, before Hadreas and his session players melt into a hypnagogic reverie that sounds like This Mortal Coil’s “Song to the Siren”. Finally, the album drifts away completely, caught in the dark undertow of closer, “Borrowed Light”, a song about having expected a pattern to emerge from life, which, of course, it never does. 

Similarly, the only pattern to Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is that there isn’t one. In the album’s first half, we get the irresistible Haiwaiian shuffle of “Without You” (which, with typical dream logic, is an address from Hadreas to himself in the mirror), leading into the baroque, harpsichord-and-string-accompanied vignette of “Jason”, wherein Hadreas sings in a falsetto to describe the hyper-specific details of a transactional sexual encounter. “Leave” then creeps in on dreamy harp arpeggios, announcing itself with the album’s titular lyric. A muffled, ocean-deep Hadreas makes a series of equally obtuse demands (“tie me to the dream, forever”) to anxious-yet-ornate instrumental backing. It even boasts what sounds like whale song, before ascending to an another plane altogether.

And then comes “On The Floor” and, honestly, the worst thing I can say about Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is that this song is almost too good. A rush of pure pop bliss that instantly makes you wish that Hadreas would release an album entirely in this vein, “On The Floor” is a call to arms for every fibre of your being to just get the hell up and dance. Hadreas’ collaboration last year with Kate Wallich’s dance company, which yielded two exceptional standalone singles (“Eye on the Wall” and “Pop Song”), sees its ultimate fruition here.

Hadreas continues to hog the dancefloor with the vampy strings and twisting rhythms of the following track, “Your Body Changes Everything”, and again on the unstoppable motorik pulse of the Springsteen-ian “Nothing At All”. The latter song reflects Hadreas’ status as one of the funniest voices on music Twitter, the title “Nothing At All” acting as a punchline that subverts its central, boastful refrain of “I’ve got what you want, babe / I’ve got what you need, son.”

Above all, it’s the sense of irresistible movement and the striving for big feelings across these songs, and much of the album, that really leaves a lasting impression. Collaboration reportedly taught Hadreas the value and thrill of connection, to others and to his physical self. Where several songs on Too Bright encapsulated Hadreas’ issues with body image and living with Crohn’s disease, and No Shape indicated that he longed to cast off the burdensome physicality of his corporeal form entirely, this new album sees him fully inhabiting his body, and, wouldn’t you know it, it’s dancing.