Mike Hadreas’ fifth album glides between sublime melodies and grimy, guttural dissonance, embracing the joys and burdens of the human body and its innumerable, intangible yearnings.
Each Perfume Genius album is a metamorphosis. Over the past decade, Mike Hadreas has transfigured from confessional balladeer to glittering prima donna to our baroque-pop bard. On his terrific fifth album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, Hadreas emerges with all new contours. Guided once more by the meticulous work of producer Blake Mills and an expert troupe of musicians, including experimental saxophonist Sam Gendel and renowned session drummer Jim Keltner, Hadreas glides between sublime melodies and grimy, guttural dissonance. It is his strongest work to date—a three-dimensional, dust-blown world that is cinematic in its grandeur and intimate in its inspection of the human form.
On 2017’s fantastic No Shape, Hadreas sang of liberating the body. Each song seemed to unhitch his spirit from the corporeal grind, letting it whip through the air like Fragonard’s swinging lady. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately feels more grounded, both in the earth and in the flesh. As on No Shape, there are skyward string arrangements and sparkling harpsichord passages, but Hadreas and his crew also introduce harmonium, grumbling synthesizer, and rust-worn electric guitar. The effect is sprawling and dynamic, made all the more intriguing by Hadreas’ agile vocal range. On earlier LPs, his voice pierced through the clouds with a clean note or a vulnerable falsetto. Those techniques remain, but he also dips to craggy lows, enhancing the record’s texture with layers of silt and grit.
“Leave” marries these two approaches beautifully. Hadreas’ voice is pitched-down and scuffed, backlit by beams of violin and twinkling keys. Halfway through, howling dogs and unintelligible whispers besiege the song from its edges as the dream succumbs to nightmare. Conversely, “Without You” and “On the Floor” are the album’s most spry compositions. The former floats on plinked organ, distant percussion, and dashes of viola, a blend that somehow resembles a calypso melody. “On the Floor,” the album’s sweet and chewy pop center, bounces atop Pino Palladino’s elastic bassline, so thick it sounds like he’s wailing on industrial-strength bungee cords. Mills’ synth guitar riffs chirp and belch to Matt Chamberlain’s peppery snare, evoking a contemporary translation of Chic. Both songs find Hadreas in a state of intangible yearning. “Without You” chronicles an absence as “a blurry shape” that’s “just enough to find a trace.” In “On the Floor,” he attempts to recall that shape once more. “I’m trying/But still I close my eyes,” he sings, “The dreaming/Bringing his face to mind.” He never quite gets ahold of the complete image—it dissolves just before it’s fully realized.
When Hadreas abandons the imagined world to confront physical reality, his palette darkens. On early single “Describe,” his voice seems to emerge from a crust of topsoil. Dirtied, distorted bass and twanging guitar lend a country western flair, and Hadreas’ rugged new look (perhaps a nod to Tom of Finland’s cowboys) enhances the fantasy. His multi-tracked vocals braid and tangle in the mix as he illustrates two sounds similarly entwined: “No bells anymore,” he sings, “just my stomach rumbling.” It’s a loaded couplet, hinting at his lifelong battle with Crohn’s disease, and a gesture toward Perfume Genius’ two greatest fascinations: The erosion of the body and the curative properties of love. When Hadreas confesses that there are no more bells, just bodily functions, it feels like a reluctant surrender to the mundane.
If No Shape endeavored to transcend the body, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately embraces the joys and burdens of human anatomy. On mid-album battle march “Your Body Changes Everything,” Hadreas explores the exchange of power between bodies. “Give me your weight, I’m solid/Hold me up, I’m falling down,” he bellows. It might be his most masculine song ever, chronicling a sexual exchange that alternately yields to strength and conquers it. But it is audibly macho as well: Hadreas sinks to a shadowy register, Gendel issues militant sax blurts, and the whole thing gallops to a relentless drum pattern. It’s robust and intense, echoing the theme song from 1982’s Conan the Barbarian (itself a celebration of flesh).
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is both vast and packed with detail. The songs expand and contract, one minute blasting open with the melodrama of a Roy Orbison ballad, the next zooming in with surgical detail as Hadreas describes ribs that fold like fabric, a tear-streaked face, an instance of post-coital petty theft. He laments the passage of time in a trembling existential opus, then squeezes us into a bedroom to witness a clumsy, tortured hookup. On their own, these complementary vantage points are potent; in concert, they are grand, filmic, and tactile all at once.
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