The singer-songwriter, Twitter humourist and queerness icon known as Perfume Genius aka Mike Hadreas unleashes a whip-smart, vibrant and uplifting fifth album that redraws his musical boundaries to dazzling effect.
Mike Hadreas cannot be accused of not having a wealth of life experience with which to use as raw material for his tumultuous and frequently baroque pop music: homophobia, violence, suicide, depression, Crohn’s disease, death threats, parental divorce, body image issues, drug and alcohol addiction all litter a sometimes debilitating back story which frames the LA-based singer-songwriter’s emotional register.
The first two Perfume Genius records were erected in the classic cultish troubadour mould, all tremulous, brittle vocals and skeletal piano; their stark and piercing missives of abuse, self-excoriation and alienation captured the imagination of an indie audience accustomed to the lapping up of introspective soul-baring. His third and fourth albums represented something of a gear-change in new-found musical ambition and flamboyance; 2017’s No Shape proved an emboldening game-changer for him, its breathless, swooping songs of transcendence, devotion and ecstasy elevating the artist closer to mainstream attention and into the sphere of spokesperson for an LGBT generation. Now he’s back with Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, a record which trades in the arty bombast of his previous effort for an Americana-flecked sense of restraint.
Recording in Los Angeles and hooking up again with long-time partner Alan Wyffels and producer Blake Mills, Hadreas has fashioned a sinewy, organic and more guitar-dominant sound that’s both purposeful and urgent whilst dissecting feelings about the body with a combination of rapture and despair worthy of a Garth Greenwell novel.
Whilst there is a taming of the ornate maximalism essayed on No Shape, a keen sense of deft experimentation abounds, from the exquisite and glittering harpsichord and fragile falsetto on the tender, Brian Wilson-like Jason to the low-slung cascade of groaning, guttural and grungy guitars on swampy lead single Describe and the sombre echoes of 50’s Roy Orbison and Elvis which haunt the gorgeous doo-wop waltz, One More Try.
The lilting and insistent On The Floor represents Perfume Genius’s most explicit version of giddy dance-pop-funk tropes even as it conveys anxiety, entrapment and dejection: “Lock the door/The constant buzzing/All through the night/The fighting/Rips me up all inside”. Meanwhile, the porcelain ping of Moonbend gestures towards the shimmering machine-pop of Bjork as it straddles a capella bliss and eerie avant-garde. Even at its most frantic and rasping, the album never sacrifices pearly melody for widescreen bombast.
Hadreas channels and summons threads of recognisable American influences – pedal-steel guitars, Southern-fried gospel, propulsive guitar-rock, pretty dream-pop – whilst breathing new life into them and introducing subtly shaded contours. Toying with themes of memory, guilt, sex and physicality, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is another idiosyncratic, intricately constructed gem; a sober and slow-spiralling record whose finest moments of sensory rush worm their way under your skin.
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