On his latest album, “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately,” Mike Hadreas, better known by his stage name, Perfume Genius, embraces emotional excess and channels it into one of the best pop albums of the year. Five albums in, Hadreas is still finding new ways to express vulnerability. “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately” ranges from crackling dissonance to immaculate melodies and hones in on the balance between physical yearning and liberation.
“Half of my whole life is gone,” Hadreas croons over the drone of organs on “Whole Life,” the opening track of the album. The song features the signature swelling string sections that have become a staple in Perfume Genius’ toolbelt. Tremolo soaked guitars and the soft twinkle of arpeggiated keys cut through these crescendos, with Hadreas’ harmonies building over the cinematic instrumental.
“Whole Life” is an ethereal cowboy ballad about the passing of time and the forgotten self as the singer grows into middle age. Hadreas will be 39 in September, but he has noted that much of the album’s subject matter takes place several years prior to its release. As a result, he depicts these events through the abstract spaces created by memory, sometimes with a newfound perspective.
“When I woke up the next day, I wasn’t like, ‘That was a song.’ I was pissed — I felt empty and gross,” Hadreas said. “But now, 15 years later, I’m like, ‘Oh, that was very interesting.’ That’s how memories are to me. Sometimes I can go through something traumatic or f—ed up, and it can be hilarious to me because of how absurd and over-the-top or soul-crushing it was.”
This constantly shifting experience is a through line on “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately,” whether it’s depicting pleasure, pain or longing.
Hadreas’ work is physical. His focus on the body as both object and instrument is best represented by “The Sun Still Burns Here.” This 65-minute modern dance piece toured the U.S. last year in collaboration with Kate Wallich and the YC Dance Company. These themes have carried over into the imagery and videos surrounding his latest release.
On the cover of “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately,” Hadreas stands bare-chested in black and white, amidst a shadow that defines and covers his body in sharp contours. Similarly, on the cover of the album’s single “On the Floor,” Hadreas has dramatically draped himself, half-naked and barefoot, across the seat of a motorcycle, in an image that evokes masculinity while being colored by a delicate flamboyance.
Lyrically, “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately” explores the fading but visceral physicality created by feelings of desire. “On the Floor” is a bubblegum ode to yearning that alludes to 1980s synth-pop without losing any originality. A reggae bounce and a fuzzy bassline carry the song, eventually blending into the background of quivering synths and Hadreas’s refrain: “I just want him in my arms.”
Hadreas describes a crush as a kind of obsession or addiction. Its weight is even more perceivable in the person’s absence. In a press release, Hadreas said, “I wanted to show that maddening, solitary part of desire but keep the core which is a real warmth and belief that you have something crucial to share with each other.” This exploration of yearning relies on images that are both there and not there while examining the power imbued by physical touch and distance.
Sonically, “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately” turns away from the maximalism of Perfume Genius’ 2017 release, “No Shape.” Hadreas’s songwriting is never afraid to get quiet or dissonant.
The song “Moonbend” sounds like an eerie lullaby, with Hadreas’s falsetto building up walls of isolation. Throughout the tracklist, Hadreas shows his vocal range, from angelic falsetto to a droning growl. “Describe” opens with the roar of distorted guitars over a marching drumbeat and Hadreas’ voice hitting the lower end of its register. Then on “Jason,” his voice becomes small, leading us through an intimate sexual encounter with a high-pitched, breathy cadence.
The juxtaposition of sound within each song is sometimes striking and perhaps creates a less cohesive listen than “No Shape.” But this is not to the detriment of the album. Blake Mills’ production creates a world of hazy Americana, calling back to the ballads of Roy Orbison and the sounds of country-rock. A heavy dose of country instrumentation laces “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately” so seamlessly that it feels completely individual. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Hadreas’ shaky vibrato captures the same balance of tenderness and power as country icons like Dolly Parton.
The imagery surrounding “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately” both parodies and indulges in the gendered theme of the gruff and weathered “working man,” which has become tied to rock and country music. Hadreas plays with these tropes of overt masculinity by twisting them into something that is both self-conscious and striking.
The cover for “Describe” features Hadreas bare-chested, posing with a sledgehammer. Similarly, the music video shows Hadreas driving four-wheelers with a woman wrapped around his back and a cigar in his mouth. The next scene is equal parts “Midsommar” and a far more intimate version of the knife fight from “Beat It.” As the distorted guitars fade into the ambience and the scene gives way to a gentle and passionate group interpretative dance, we see the contrast that Hadreas has used within the song and his album: a world that is both brutal and tender, but unabashedly open.