PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Perfume Genius Purges Himself and It's Contagious

Photo: Camille Vivier / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

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. Perfume Genius cares so much it hurts on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately.

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Perfume Genius


15 May 2020

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


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.