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

Posted: by The Editor

For an artist of ageless wisdom, the concept of time is a perplexing one to tackle. From its first line, the latest release from Perfume Genius commands your attention.

Half of my whole life is gone” sings Mike Hadreas, performing under his Perfume Genius moniker since 2008. Hearing him proclaim that his life is nearly over carries the same feeling of disbelief one feels when a song or a movie from their youth they loved has turned fifteen. “What? No, way” we say. “How could time have passed without me noticing”?

As the last decade wore on, Hadreas has been at work writing and performing some of the most striking, baroque indie pop, and outclassing his peers. His latest for Matador, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, reveals that he is still only getting better, twelve years, and five albums later. 

After that opening line, the aperture of “Whole Life” widens, and we see all of the intricate parts at work here. The quavering synth hovers quietly in the background, but its joined by warm guitar, sparkling piano, and washes of ornate strings. Hadreas builds the song into a vast expanse that feels like a modern classic: an alternate universe take on “What a Wonderful World.” He has always managed to create music that feels clean, but not sterile.

That said, he has also always excelled at making less neat, more abrasive sounds. Taking some inspiration from the slew of rough, cataclysmic sounds used on 2017’s excellent No Shape, “Describe” features visceral guitars that squirm uneasily throughout. Hadreas’ vocal performance feels pleading, blindfolded, pawing at the air and feeling around as he begs “can you describe them for me?”

Fire highlight’s Hadreas’ flair for drama. When the title is finally uttered on “Leave,” it is accompanied by vivid lyrics such as “chain me to the dream forever / turn the camera on and leave.” Regardless, its execution is decidedly stoic: Hadreas speaks in a low muffle atop regal plucks of a harp.

As Hadreas finishes his mantra, the space is consumed by a symphony of wails, the sources of which are unclear but sound like elk. The song is an understated masterpiece that calls to mind a Renaissance painting. While the song may not make any swift movements, its subjects are forever trapped in stillness, there is action depicted in its details. “Leave” deserves the appreciative scrutiny one would give such a work of art. 

In another of Fire’s abrupt yet stirring transitions, we are led into the most danceable cut of the Perfume Genius’ catalog. The gliding, jovial bassline of “On The Floor” manages to mask the sadness woven into its lyrics. As he sings “lock the door / I shake / I promise every day /to change”, the arrangement takes the shape of a delightful pop hook. It’s hard to overstate the exertion you can feel:, Hadreas sounds out of breath, as if he recorded it while dancing as in the track’s video.

Movement, and its inherent expressions, have been a part of Hadreas’ career since its beginning. Last year he worked with choreographer Kate Wallich and the YC Dance Company on a performance piece called The Sun Still Burns Here. The show explores themes of queer identity, deterioration, and catharsis. Unlike the dancing done in the video of “On The Floor”, the choreography displayed  here is a sort of writhing, deeply human expression. Hadreas is able to create grand statements with his lyrics, but understands how much can be communicated only through body language.

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is his best work to date. Listening to it can only provide you an audible experience, but you can feel just how much each of these songs moves.


Eric Bennett | @seething_coast

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