Perfume Genius’ great ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’ is here – review
Every Perfume Genius (Mike Hadreas) album has been noticeably different from the last, and he's grown drastically an artist, from his days writing the raw, bedroom piano pop of his 2010 debut album Learning to the loud, fleshed-out art pop of 2017's No Shape. A lot of artists change up their sound from album to album, but what makes Perfume Genius exceptionally good at it is that, even as his music sounds louder and grander and more polished, it never loses the intimacy that he displayed on Learning. He's an artist who knows how to grow his sound without abandoning the traits that people fell in love with in the first place. On his fifth and latest album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, that is still the case, and it's perhaps even more true than it was on his last album.
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately pushes Perfume Genius' sound to new extremes in a handful of different ways. Sometimes, this album is home to the most atmospheric and minimal music in Perfume Genius' discography; other times it's even more fleshed-out and layered than No Shape, whose producer Blake Mills reprises his role on this album. Mike continues to casually hop between genres -- incorporating alt-country on a handful of these songs, as well as industrial goth ("Your Body Changes Everything"), percussive new wavey pop ("On the Floor"), baroque pop ("Jason"), and plenty of sounds that don't fit neatly into established categories -- without it sounding forced or scatter-brained. The album's sequencing helps -- when "Describe" and "On The Floor" came out as singles, it seemed a little jarring how different they were, and that feeling goes away when you hear both songs in the context of the album -- but a bigger factor is how these songs all sound like they're coming from such a distinctly personal place. As ever, Mike Hadreas' lyrical style sounds like a cross between poetry and a diary entry, with hyper-specific, imagery-inducing details that seem like they could only come from a person speaking from experience. That, combined with his unmistakable delivery, affectations, and melodic style, makes these songs sound cohesive even when they seem so different on the surface.
The new album requires a little more patience than Perfume Genius' previous work and it might take a few listens to settle in, but it has moments that stick out immediately too. The singles were picked well -- "On the Floor" (which has Phoebe Bridgers on backing harmonies) is Perfume Genius' most radio-friendly song since "Queen," and "Describe" is even better. "Describe" sounds like Perfume Genius' earthy 2012 album Put Your Back N 2 It with added layers of fuzz, twang, and art rock sensibilities. It's as heart-string tugging as Perfume Genius' more modest early work but as musically intricate as his more recent material, and it's one of 2020's best and most unique singles. "On the Floor" is kind of an outlier on this album, but there are a few others where "Describe" came from. "Some Dream," the album's second to last song, is most directly cut from the same cloth as "Describe" and uses the same type of fuzzed-out Americana guitar. And on a more conceptual level, "Jason" shares "Describe"'s knack for combining early Perfume Genius with more recent Perfume Genius and sounding totally new in the process. "Jason" utilizes '60s psych pop-style harpsichord and George Martin-esque string arrangements (performed by members of yMusic, who are all over this album), while also sounding like a sequel to Learning highlight "Mr. Peterson." This time it's "Breeders on CD" instead of "a tape of Joy Division," and the overall theme is different ("Mr. Peterson" was a tale of suicide, "Jason" is a tale of what sounds like a shitty sexual encounter), but the plainspoken, tell-all storytelling has the same type of impact.
The upbeat, driving, No Shape-like "Nothing At All" and the jangly, folk rock-inspired "Without You" rival "On The Floor" as the most immediate songs on the record, while a song like "Whole Life" is just as impactful, but in a more slow-burning way. On the other hand, songs like "Leave," "Moonbend," and album closer "Borrowed Light" find Perfume Genius at his most minimal and ethereal. They're songs that would register as "filler" on a lesser artist's album, but Set My Heart On Fire Immediately succeeds because of these songs, not in spite of them. They make the catchier songs pop more, they make the album more dynamic, and they become highlights of their own the more you listen to the album. And these songs help establish Set My Heart on Fire Immediately's range, which is the widest range of any Perfume Genius album to date. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately has Perfume Genius poppiest music and his most difficult, his most layered music and his most minimal. Whether or not it's the best Perfume Genius album, it's the most right now Perfume Genius album. It sounds like a culmination of everything that has come to define Perfume Genius' music up to this point, but it also sounds like it throws the idea of "Perfume Genius' music" out the window. If Set My Heart on Fire Immediately makes one thing clear, it's that no matter how far Mike Hadreas deviates from his earliest musical roots, he somehow only sounds more like himself.
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is out now. Stream it and watch the videos for two songs below...