Published on May 15th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
Perfume Genius (Mike Hadreas) returns to top himself once again, creating yet another tenacious but delicate record. Noah unpacks what makes this guy so special.
When I first heard Perfume Genius, the brainchild of Mike Hadreas, I knew there was something special about his approach to pop. You could tell it was his approach, his vision—not just a copy of a copy of a copy. It was like the genre found him; instead of Hadreas reaching for memorable and pithy hooks, those hooks seem to have a life of their own, discovering his voice through his eagerness to belt out his deepest fears. His melodies are a siren song.
Sometimes one can just sense a tangible force of nature at work with a musician. You can feel it in the spaces in between the notes, the way a certain chord will ring out. A ferocity of feeling that serves as a necessary antidote to the basic contrivances that have come to define pop or rock or hip-hop or whatever. Perfume Genius sounds like a full band, and while Mike certainly has significant collaborators like Grammy-nominated producer Blake Mills, there is an undeniable singularity about his musical presence. A singularity that serves as the substance of the songs in and of itself. He doesn’t write hooks; he writes Mike Hadreas songs.
And the fact of their immediacy, their catchy warmth, makes it impossible not to marvel at what he has and will accomplish. 2017’s No Shape was another milestone for Mike as he embraced an ornate, widescreen sensibility, showering his signature melancholy in epic, atmospheric instrumentation. At times, it recalled the crescendo-laden sensibilities of M83. Yet, it retained all the personality, all the heartache of his past records. He proved that every move he makes is smooth. He proved that with a sturdy backbone, his albums can forge new paths without losing themselves. A perfect marriage of ambition and identity.
So as Set My Heart on Fire Immediately hits the public (I was going to say “hits stores…” *Sigh*), Hadreas really has nothing left to prove. He’s entered a territory that many artists have found a little too comfortable. He could have easily made a good enough record, a steady reminder of his incredibly talent. He could have just thrown some more atmospheric, dream pop-fairy dust at us and it probably would’ve been enough to satiate fans. But the dude just won’t quit. With this new record, he proves that he is one of the hardest working, one of the thirstiest songwriters on the planet. He’s always pushing himself.
I’d hesitate to call his new album his masterpiece. I don’t know if his music really fits into that trajectory—the one in which artists build up to a peak, check out the view from apex mountain, and then slowly descend back down to Earth. Every album feels like his masterpiece, yet, they also feel distinct enough that it leaves you wanting more. One is left feeling that he has an infinite amount of songs that he can write on a moment’s notice. Like I said, when you listen to Perfume Genius, you don’t picture a guy sitting down and saying, “Ok, I’m going to write a song now.” You see the pure inspiration; you picture a man who can somehow put his innermost impressions of the world directly from his brain onto a record. As if his head is his own recording studio and the purest melodies that exude from his imagination get immediately and indelibly etched onto wax.
For a generally moody and cerebral artist, the lead singles for this record delightfully signify a man who is starting to embrace the light. “On the Floor” is maybe the catchiest and most upbeat track I’ve heard from Hadreas. The track has a clear funk influence; those scratchy, impetuous guitars make it impossible not to tap your toes. The percussion meshes with the melody perfectly, a gradual, jovial characterization of yearning for someone. Still a song about loss, about anxiety, he cleverly dresses it up as an inspirational anthem. He shouts, “I pray and wait/I cross out his name on the page.” It plays like a refreshingly honest version of one of those cheesy, girl-power break up songs—”Wannabe” by the Spice Girls or something. But Mike makes sure the tension is real and the angst is palpable. “How long ’til this washes away/How long ’til my body is safe?” That is the success of the song—a juxtaposition of a confident tenacity with an endless array of questions.
“Describe” is more brutal, using grunge guitars and simple, blunt percussion to paint a different picture—one of frustration and cynicism. Mike’s angelic voice surrounded by a hellish soundscape is extremely evocative. “Can you describe them for me?” are lyrics that were apparently inspired by Mike’s dissociation. He tells DIY Magazine: “Sometimes you are in such a dark place that you don’t even remember what goodness is.” He is begging for someone to tell him how to feel, to describe his suffering, to read it back to him.
When I first heard the track, I immediately pictured a police officer and the run-of-the-mill questions they’d normally ask a victim of a crime. “Can you describe them for me?” sounds like it evokes an act of malice and the experience of re-living that. But that therein lies the brilliance of Hadreas’ songwriting. He knows how to position songs so that they extend outward into the listener’s imagination while remaining entirely personal. His depression and anxiety successfully contorted to my image of mental illness as a heinous crime. Thus, the dissociation he discussed is characterized as a kind of deflated testimony. Listeners will always project themselves onto songs, and his music knowingly facilitates that. But his emotions remain thought provoking and immense nonetheless, especially when condensed into a mosaic of intense fears and traumas.
The album paces itself out relatively well with its more vivacious tracks and its slower piano ballads. The first half is a bit punchier, with tracks like “Without You” and “Jason” serving as vital connective tissue connecting the ferocity of “Describe” with the sweeter tenacity of “On the Floor.” “Without You” is a personal favorite, and I’m desperately hoping we get a music video for it down the road.
“Your Body Changes Everything” is the centerpiece of the album, a necessary love song for an enthusiastic album that has been, up to that point, competing in a tug of war with sorrow. It chugs along with a dark exterior, but then lightens up as the hook chimes in—thanks to staccato violins that signal the sweetness of its message. Once again, Hadreas proves immune to that age old “hat-on-a-hat” principle, balancing dark with light and pain with pleasure convincingly.
The second half of the album is significantly dourer and more isolated. “Moonbend” and “Just a Touch” are decadent forays into a kind of mystical forest of wistfulness. Words and sounds flow into each other in somewhat unintelligible but gorgeous ways, nonetheless. “Nothing At All” gives the album a necessary jolt back to life, turning back to the toe-tapping form of self-deprecation captured earlier on “Without You” or “On The Floor.” He demonstrates a careful self-consciousness about the momentum each song carries into the next. The album would risk being marginally top-heavy if not for this song, which I’d expect to emerge as most people’s biggest highlight of the record.
Holding back those punches for the latter part of the album makes the moodier tracks around “Nothing At All” stand out. “Some Dream” is a rollercoaster of aesthetics, starting slow and singular before exploding into a dense fireworks-display of noise. Yet, the track is reigned in by a purposely flimsy and opaque melody. It then crashes down to Earth, encompassing an entire album’s worth of feelings. The rise and fall, the noise and the silence—all coalescing perfectly.
Mike Hadreas is crowning himself a master of alternative, forlorn pop. Perfectly perceptive of the kinds of melodic twists and turns that latch themselves into listener’s brains, he is working in his own paradigm. Taking the tools of pop’s past—artists like Kate Bush and Prince—he uses them wisely and sparingly. He doesn’t really need to do much more. His gift is his own uniqueness, impressed on listeners by the sheer nature of his presence on the record. He succeeds at being entirely original and entirely satisfying, a feat that few can pull off. His instincts are endearing and relatable all on their own. And at this point in his career, he is just riding an incredible wave of trust in them.