3 weeks have followed since the release of Perfume Genius’ (Mike Hadreas) 5th album, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately and I have been co-existing with it ever since. Hadreas has combined aspects of heavy grunge guitar, a range of vocal delivery from distorted or whispered to flawless falsetto, and orchestral theatrics. This project is among my favourite releases of the year.
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is the emotionally raw album in which Hadreas describes his queer experience with ease and honesty that is second to none. Inviting and unassuming, we are immersed in the intricacies of the world of Perfume Genius. There are points in this album where it felt like I was on the verge of intrusion, almost as though I were flicking through the pages of his personal diary. Points like these were where Hadreas’ storytelling was so remarkably raw that I could completely identify with the meaning of the song within the first few opening lines. A rare occurrence.
Judging the book by its cover seems to be an okay approach to take with the artwork of this album. A black and white shot of a more masculine, ripped, version of Hadreas, whose body is soiled with engine oil stands with confidence; he is broad and skin-bare from the waist up, staring into the lens. Raw and in charge of the portrayal of his own body, Hadreas has taken control, juxtaposing the commonplace portrayal of himself as effeminate and weak.
‘Without You’ juxtaposes the light-hearted modern singer/songwriter country-infused sound with the dark, hazy description of Hadreas’ body dysmorphia – “It’s a blurry shape / It’s a jumbled tape”. ‘Jason’ is the baroque-pop moment that follows in which Hadreas showcases his storytelling talent at its best. It is astonishing that he tells the most personal story of a brief sexual encounter with a closeted man, yet somehow, makes it so relatable to his listeners. The first verse is immediately striking –
“Jason undressed me / Lying on his sheets / He did not do the same / Even his boots were on”.
At only the fourth track, it seems that the album couldn’t get any better. That is, until, we are met by the following tracks which lead into the second half of the record. ‘Leave’ features the best of atmospheric music. A drone powers through the entire track which coheres the pitch-shifted and distorted vocals with arpeggiated keys. Through the sense of nostalgia and psychedelia, this track feels like a longing for the most infatuated of summers, only heightened by the lyricism “Chain me to the dream forever”. This is before the 80s-esque funk-infused bop, ‘On the Floor’. With shimmering guitar and more hazy vocals, this feels as though Perfume Genius has now entered us into that very summer that he spent the previous track slowly conjuring up thoughts about.
Questioning, “How long ‘til this washes away? / How long ‘til my body is safe?”, Hadreas sets the scene for his exploration of sex as an out of body experience on the supernatural, ‘Moonbend’. Through hazy and whispered vocals, we see an artist peculiarly narrating a sexual encounter they have had, as though they are watching the scenes unfold from outside of their own body.
The grunge, first mentioned in ‘Describe’, then returns with the alternative rock-pop found on ‘Nothing at All’. This is the highlight for me, featuring one of the most well-written pre-choruses I’ve ever heard. The tension builds in the repetitive chorus before it breaks with the soaring woodwind instrumentation. I imagine each note played as a single bird that makes up a scattering across a blue sky. Placed tenth in the tracklisting after a few of the most intimate, atmospheric explorations, this track picks up the pace in the same manner as ‘On the Floor’, making plenty of room for more of the same tracks which focus primarily on the feeling the music provokes.
The last 3 tracks transcend back into this previously explored style that is more akin to Perfume Genius’ decadent 2017 album No Shape. Hadreas laments on ‘One More Try’, singing
“My remembering / Not what it used to be / My dream / Fell in hazy sheets”
This track is sternly melancholic, with just a repeated flanged guitar riff that surrounds the vocal throughout the entire track.
‘Some Dream’ is poised with the perfect balance of ambient purity and grit. Reverb-drenched, shimmering guitars lean over Hadreas’ wispy vocals, which retell the feeling of being taken over by the desire to create music. An unlikely, but welcomed heavily distorted grunge guitar returns, before the track finishes with soaring vocals, beautifully tinged by a dissonant string accompaniment. Hadreas questions all of his sacrifice – “All this for a song?”.
‘Borrowed Light’, then, acts as the summing up of the entire record. After all of the tension, the highs and lows of the story told, this reflective but melancholic track brings us to a humbling end. The final line of the whole work quenches my thirst for much-needed closure and coherence- “But there’s no secret / Just an undertow”.
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Over the 13 tracks and 3 weeks of listening, the closest relationship has been built between me and the nuances of this album which explore the queer experience through a fresh lens. From the 80s-funk-pop featured on ‘On the Floor’ to the reverb-drenched grunge guitar in “Describe”, the singles set expectations for this album that were simultaneously met and exceeded, painting the picture for the extreme melodrama that is – life as a queer person. Even as I’m writing this, now, weeks on from its release, I still find shiny new-ness with each listen. Hadreas shows, with his winding poetic lyricism, that this music is the most effective vessel for the communication of his story.
Perfume Genius continues to lead the way for a new kind of queer male artist – one in touch with their vulnerable effeminate side, as well as embracing the more masculine end of the spectrum. Hadreas shows us it’s possible to get you a man that can do both.