I’m not one for forced symbolism. But if you really want to go into it, there’s something to be said about the fact that the last Perfume Genius album cover saw Mike Hadreas with his back to the camera, completely obscuring his face. On the one before, he had his head cocked left in a stern side glare. Now, look at him! He’s shirtless, solemn, casting his most piercing stare directly into our eyes. It must be that this album is his most direct, right? After a decade of obscurity, he’s ready to look us in the face and tell us what he’s all about, right?
Well, that analogy holds up until you realize that Hadreas’ work as Perfume Genius has never been particularly camera shy. Just three years ago, in this very publication, I was ending a Perfume Genius feature by writing that, after years of restraint, “he does not necessarily feel like he is holding himself back anymore.” When speaking about No Shape, Hadreas was quick to emphasize his newfound urge to embrace maximalism. Maybe that was a product of his recently attained sobriety, maybe not. Either way, it was there, and it was so, so satisfying.
No Shape was a groundbreaking release for Perfume Genius because it found a way to add orchestration and expand its sound without these expansions feeling ornamental. It felt like however much his sound grew, Hadreas was growing along with it. Any experimentation was not a product of an urge to be different, but rather a need for his music to hit newer, higher emotional notes.
There wasn’t necessarily much clutter on No Shape, but if there was, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately clears it. The music here is more barren and minimalist than ever, but that’s not to say it is stripped back. While the set-up of choice for early Perfume Genius was Hadreas duetting with a single instrument, he’s steadily gotten more comfortable tacking on ingredients without bloating the tracks. This impulse was at its most daring on No Shape. Now, it’s no longer an impulse but a mastered skill. While past Perfume Genius has either been an exercise in restraint or indulgence, the album’s maturity stops it from being either.
The key weapon here is a muddy, slightly distorted guitar that swells through the lower frequencies of the tracks and makes it hard for any competing sounds to elbow their way in. The ones that do are carefully selected and worthy. On “Describe”, this tone is a constant, spreading itself onto every sound, plodding along with appropriate lethargy. Hadreas’ voice locks into the groove so much that, when the chords change, it’s like he willed them into existence. On “Your Body Changes Everything”, the distortion is more of an ornament, adding grit to some borderline hilarious Pirates of the Carribean-esque string patterns. It takes a musical decision that reads as a gimmick and makes it seem like the most obvious complement to the track’s momentum. “Some Dream” sees the lo-fi guitar idea pushed to its zenith, with a flood of harsh strums coming in after one of the most tender moments on the album. They swallow the track up with their bulkiness. There is barely space to breathe. However, the result is not only the record’s starkest juxtaposition but its most blunt catharsis. Surprisingly enough, it’s the opposite of jarring.
There’s only so much you can say about how Set My Heart sounds. It’s excellent. I don’t know how it could really be better. Sometimes melodies will crawl out of nowhere and make you think, “is this the catchiest thing Perfume Genius has ever written?” At its apex, Hadreas’ voice will well-up into a pitch that he must be straining for, but his ability to hit these notes is a given; it’s what he does when he’s up there that’s impressive. When he soars into a light vibrato, it’s always the right choice. When he lays off the showboating and lets the note settle clearly and calmly, it’s peak serenity. And he always saves his stickiest melodies for his lower register, a painstaking howl that, when layered and multi-tracked, can deflect anything.
More so than most other artists, Perfume Genius’ songs are vehicles for precise emotional tangents. You can trust that whatever thought or fear he’s entertaining will be given the perfect melody and performance. The first actual statement he makes on here is plain and loud: “Half of my whole life is gone.” Any album that starts with such a stark realization must hit hard for anyone in the same position. Hadreas decides to present the thought in all its rawness instead of glossing it up, which makes imagery like “shadows soften towards some tender light / in slow motion, I leave them behind” appear even more poignant when it follows. That’s just the way he writes; reflective acceptance blossoms from the same seed as stress. A thought stings, he waltzes with it, then moves on to the next one.
No matter what facet of his mind he’s exploring, he absolutely nails it. Case in point, “Jason”, a song about a traumatic, formative sexual encounter Hadreas had when he was young. It’s coated in hindsight and interpretation, and the lyrics on their own seem positive. “I was proud to seem warm and mothering, just for a night,” he sings, but the soft, unflinching tone of his voice registers as a blank stare, mirroring the disconnect between the words that come out and the dark thoughts your mind meanders to when you speak them. It’s pain-masking 101, but if you zone out, you might just miss it.
“On the Floor” is an obvious choice for a single, with a refrain so huge that a wash of angelic vocal euphoria is the only thing that could usher it in. It’s the sound of powering through something dismal, juggling the pride you take in your suffering with how hard suffering actually sucks. Yet the song writhes around like the most joyous withdrawal, registering as borderline motivational.
You need to care so much about your art to pack this much meaning into not only the words but the tones that adorn and deliver them. That’s the thing. Mike Hadreas cares so much it hurts. He makes art that’s reaching for a utopia where healing and embracing yourself brings forth a state of bliss. Regardless of whether he got there when making these songs or if he gets there while performing them, his ability to purge himself on every track is contagious. You don’t have to go there with him to enjoy this album, but don’t be surprised if you do.
Photo: Courtesy of Grandstand Media