Keeping up with art-pop auteur Mike Hadreas, also known as Perfume Genius, has been a pleasure akin to watching an upstart film director evolve their craft from microbudget indie flicks to ambitious epics. From the hushed confessions of his 2010 debut, Learning, and the synthpop excursions of the 2014 breakout LP, Too Bright, to 2017’s orchestral burst of energy, No Shape, each Perfume Genius album has gotten grander in scale without sacrificing the incisive lyrics that put him on the map.
With his latest album, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Hadreas has captured his baroque-pop portraits of queer longing in immersive widescreen.
Hadreas reunites with indie super-producer Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Dawes) to conjure a bewitching sonic daydream both gnarled and gorgeous. The lead single, “Describe”, roars and thrums in a way that no Perfume Genius song has done before. Mills’ distorted guitar is viscerally sludgy, evoking the hopeless mire of depression that Hadreas sings about. “Moonbend” plays with washed-out electronic textures before letting light in with a beautifully ornate orchestral flourish, reminiscent of Portishead at the trip-hop group’s most contemplative and organic.
In addition to the jaw-dropping production, one of the most exciting elements of the album is how Hadreas recontextualizes the sonics and storytelling of classic country music. On the opening track, “Whole Life”, Hadreas tenderly croons a ballad about mortality inspired by the tearjerkers of Roy Orbison. He even recruited a former collaborator of Orbison’s, Jim Keltner, to play drums on this track and a couple of others on the record. “Without You” features reverberating and sun-swept guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Townes Van Zandt record, but the song’s subject of body dysmorphia is too intimate and taboo to make the Grand Ole Opry stage. In a recent Pitchfork interview, Hadreas explains that country music “had so much history and warmth to it, but that I wasn’t fully included in, which made it even more magical.” By borrowing the sounds of classic Americana but ditching the heteronormative storytelling, Perfume Genius proudly joins the gay “yeehaw agenda” alongside “Old Town Road” and Orville Peck.
Hadreas’ empathetic tales of repressed queer lovers are his method for “letting in some love where there always should have been some”, to quote the track “Jason”. In that song, he pitches his voice to an angelic falsetto to recount a one-night-stand he had with a straight man when he was 23 years old. You feel for the titular Jason as his actions are narrated in intimate detail: “He ran his hands up me / he was afraid / tears streaming down his face”. “Just a Touch” also portrays a queer relationship stifled by societal stigma, the narrator of the song writes their partner a song to remember them by while the couple is separated. Perhaps the most heartrending track on the album is “One More Try”, a cosmic country elegy for couples forced into hiding. Hadreas imagines a person on their deathbed, their memories fading, who mourns “Why’d we hide? My life for one more try”. Queer voices who have been silenced and marginalized throughout history are granted beautiful requiems through these songs.
The mournful tone of much of the album makes its more optimistic tracks stand out even further. “On The Floor” is a poppy respite from the existential terror that haunts the rest of the record, depicting a crush that borders on an all-consuming obsession. Aquatic funk guitar and burbling keyboards give the song irrepressibly buoyant energy worthy of a bedroom dance party. It’s a shame that Perfume Genius won’t be opening up for Tame Impala on the group’s arena tour as originally planned, as this track would likely sound gigantic in such a large venue as American Airlines Center. Fortunately, it’s still a total bop on headphones. “Nothing At All” also helps add levity to the record with chiming glockenspiel, gloriously fuzzy guitar, and romantic vows like “the sadness you carry / it hangs like a ghost / and I’ll just tear it down and I’ll wear it like a ribbon”.
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately clocks in at 50 minutes but none of that time feels wasted, just like in a great film.This album is the most fully-realized Perfume Genius project yet and also serves as a great entry-point for those new to his work.