Perfume Genius Rises to New Immersive Excesses With ‘Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’
Since his 2010 debut “Learning,” Mike Hadreas, who records under the uncannily appropriate moniker Perfume Genius, brandished an aesthetic all of his own. His uniquely expressive voice and his florid productions amassed both a fervent fanbase and widespread critical acclaim with 2012’s “Put Your Back N 2 It” and 2014’s “Too Bright,” the latter bringing him to new heights with the queer anthem “Queen.” 2017’s “New Shape” paired him with producer Blake Mills, known for his work with the likes of Fiona Apple and Alabama Shakes, and saw the sudden articulation of a greatness hinted at in earlier releases, now allowed free reign in terms of artistic instinct and pop appeal. His latest album, “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately,” finds Hadreas again working with Mills, and managing to outdo its predecessor. As the title suggests, it’s an album about breaking free, giving in, or anything in between — essentially an expression of unbridled emotion, a lofty concept for which Hadreas could hardly be better suited.
Moments into the charged, cinematic opener “Whole Life,” it’s clear that you are in for an immersive experience, with the always expressive Hadreas sounding more unabashedly emotive, even unhinged, than ever before. A warm, lush soundscape opens out, with rickety, raked chords leading the way for Hadreas’ free, whimsical melodic excursions atop lofty strings. He is always introducing new tricks with his versatile singing, and here he has a way of building up from silence, and swelling into every syllable, a bit like Maynard James Keenan of Tool. It’s the sound of strained grandeur, all eventually dissipating into twinkling keys and mist. Then comes the epic single, “Describe,” a great leap forward Hadreas, a wildly original racket, with the band jamming out in a contained cacophony, suspended in chainsaw fuzz, and Mike signing as if fully smitten, in a shoegaze haze. The focal point of the album, it finds Hadreas observing, “No bells anymore / Just my stomach rumbling,” before indulging the key question, “Can you describe them for me?” It’s a brilliantly original angle for a song, the idea of invoking a medium for all the lost beauty in life. The second half is an ambient stretch of sustained synths and faint whisperings, functioning in the greater scheme as a pause that finds welcome resolution in “Without You,” which picks up the pace, emerging elegantly from the haze, and builds on the idea of rediscovering the lustre in life. Hadreas sings, “You know it’s been such a long, long time,” then adds a climactic “without you,” losing himself in an infectious melody, and unfolding over himself in harmonies over jaunty guitar strumming and Balearic washes, for some full head-in-the-clouds fare.
The harpsichord-heavy “Jason” is a classic example of falsetto being a bit hard to take. Of course, there will also be some for whom Hadreas’ over-the-top singing is what makes the song. Hadreas has long established himself as a sort of queer icon, and this track overplays that angle, with the excessively feminized delivery seemingly meant to go hand in hand with the expressed adoration of the titular character. It’s definitely a unique and bold act, and the instrumentation builds naturally around the vocals, its filigree designed to bring out all their dreamy excesses. “Leave” runs like an afterthought on the previous track. A harp line guides washes of ambient sound, over which Hadreas mumbles, now back in the lower register, and the sound assumes all sorts of expressive incidentals. By the end it’s a mixture of treated strings and groaning, another strikingly novel display of emotion.
Out of the blue comes “On the Floor,” a bouncy, effervescent track that channels Cyndi Lauper’s idiosyncrasies, and simultaneously sounds a bit like classic rhythm and blues in ample electric reimagination, a new basis for Hadreas’ singular strain of romanticism. It’s a thrilling combination of styles and signifiers, and the drive of the pulsating rhythm, combined with the uncontained energy of Hadreas’ wispy vocals, is truly something else. There’s a colorful, shifting mess of hammered-on notes, and cloudy, whimsical outpourings evaporating into mist, and it ends with Hadreas bellowing with a new abandon over endless trills. “Your Body Changes Everything” introduces another bold sonic skeleton, this time a brittle ‘80s bass backdrop, and some goofy flute-like synth sounds that pick up on all the music’s bona fide silliness. Bringing this over the top, Hadreas puts on a rather ridiculous baritone vibrato, and sings the titular line with an impassioned affect, as if nearly collapsing under the weight of the sentiment. A cascading series of “I know, I know, I know” lyrics that overlap and harmonize makes for an ideal ending, wrapping the affair up with an abruptness that fits the uncontrollable spontaneity of it all.
“Moonbend” is an appropriate title for whatever this track is. Hadreas sings in long, sustained seeps of sound, alongside sculpted shavings that emerge and fade. It’s another instance of his being quite fearless with his singing, this time to ends more readily palatable than “Jason,” but still the type of vocals to arouse some confused unease. The combination of lofty conceit and rather shabby presentation effectively conveys the feeling of being fully under the force of someone.“Just a Touch” places Hadreas over a sparse, hypnotic backdrop of spaced-out bass and soaring strings, exchanging the buoyant bombast for an unanticipated dark romance that makes for a moving moment. “Nothing at All” continues in this sprawled out vein, with a drawn out, distorted tone driving Hadreas’ outpourings, until they too pick up distortion and coalesce in a refrain of “I’ve got what you want, babe.” The colloquial simplicity, coming after all the removed, scattered abstractions, hints at the silly irrationality of infatuation, an idea seconded by the most cartoonish string melodies imaginable. By the end, a beat has taken root, and everything has fallen into place neatly.
Hadreas seems to outdo himself with every number. He continues with “One More Try,” a pristine waltz number, to tie together previous intimations. A beat trudges along, and he bellows away blissfully. “Some Dream” finds Hadreas’ voice at a dramatic apex, amplified in soft focus, impeccably resonant. The minimalist and maximalist drives that have alternated throughout the record meet here, as the song switches halfway, piling on layers for an exhilarating electronic flurry that gradually opens again into ringing tones and ambiance, over which Hadreas belts passionately into the distance. Finally, “Borrowed Light” fades out, returning to soft keys, and bringing us back full circle to the cinematic scale of the opener, as Hadreas’ voice stretches expansively, then fades over immersive swells, and pans elegantly out.
“Set My Heart On Fire Immediately” is an album that could hardly better live up to its title. It’s full of the histrionic excesses that one would expect from such a name. Hadreas is so blatant in his indulgences that the lines blur between tongue-in-cheek posturing and complete sincerity. When unraveling the layers, one has to simply take it all in and hand it to Hadreas for going all out — if only more artists were this admirably unrestrained. All the idiosyncrasies apparent since “Learning,” which saw their gradual realization on successive albums, appear here newly crystallized, and make for a wild ride altogether. From the exhilarating distortion and shoegaze swirls to the outlandish string-laden baroque pop, and the ‘80s-informed effusive synth bombast to the perennially expressive vocal reinventions, Perfume Genius’ latest album is a bold leap forward.
“Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” is available May 15 on Apple Music.