Music Reviews

Perfume Genius Embarks on the Most Colorful Journey of His Career

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Genre: Art Pop

Favorite Tracks: “Without You,” “Jason,” “On The Floor,” “Nothing At All”

Wikipedia classifies a ”late bloomer” as “a person whose talents or capabilities are not visible to others until later than usual.” While it would not be wholly accurate to describe Michael Hadreas as a late bloomer, per se, one could be forgiven for perhaps ascribing him the label by mistake. At first, it seems like a sort of wry wink, a la Roger Daltrey singing “I hope I die before I get old” in The Who’s “My Generation,” when Hadreas opens his latest record by plaintively singing that half of his whole life is gone—that is at least until you realize that Hadreas himself is pushing 40, and that he’s over a decade into his music career. The reason that the “late bloomer” article doesn’t quite fit for Hadreas, who has been releasing unique and forward-thinking pop projects of various kinds under the Perfume Genius moniker since 2008, is simple: his music has been captivating from the very start. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 2014’s TOO BRIGHT that he began to reach a wider audience, and after his phenomenal 2017 album NO SHAPE, which pushed his sound to the boldest extents it had reached to date, there were more eyes on his newest effort than have ever been on him before; one might expect a lesser artist to struggle to follow up a record so widely admired, but across SET MY HEART ON FIRE IMMEDIATELY, Hadreas proves himself more than up to the task.

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The fifth Perfume Genius album makes absolutely no pretenses, even before you press play on the opening song. With an exceptionally bold title, SET MY HEART ON FIRE IMMEDIATELY’s album cover is a simple black and white image of Hadreas standing shirtless before the camera, eyes fixed on the unseen horizon beyond the lens, offering all of himself to his audience. The music is much the same, and arguably as emotionally open and confessional as he’s ever been. Hadreas embarks on the most dynamic and colorful musical journey of his career, exploring a wide range of different styles and sounds while always remaining firmly planted in his own universe. His latest boasts a far broader instrumental palette than any of Hadreas’ previous efforts, which makes itself apparent right away with the soaring, mournful opener “Whole Life,” featuring a sharp and tasteful electric guitar part and majestic orchestral strings. The hits keep coming, first with the churning yet ethereal “Describe” and then with no-doubt album highlight “Without You,” a radiant song which sounds more like a full band effort than perhaps anything else in the Perfume Genius catalogue. It’s a consistent hallmark of the record, with Hadreas sounding less and less like the solo pop auteur he started out as, and more and more like the fully realized and ascendant songwriter, arranger, and bandleader he has become. “On The Floor,” features backing vocals from the ever-present Phoebe Bridgers and an elastic, rolling groove that somehow sounds simultaneously retro and yet unlike any other song I could name. It’s a specialty of Hadreas, capturing the latent energy of other great artists from the past without ever quite making it clear which artists they are, his artistic vision too singular to be anything other than fully his own.

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However, I feel like I’m dancing around the central presence of this record, which is of course Hadreas himself. This brings us to the song “Jason,” one of the most plainly stunning tracks not just on this album, but also of the year in music. Hadreas strikes many different vocal tones and timbres throughout the album, but here he settles into a tender, breathy falsetto, telling the captivating story of a sexual encounter with a straight man from many years in the past. Backed by a playful harpsichord and anchoring melodic bass part, along with plenty of dramatic strings, the song manages to be almost pleasantly nostalgic without surrendering the awkward and almost callous nature of the story itself. It’s a song with more emotional layers than I know how to neatly unpack, and one of those rare songs that only seems to hold more secrets the more you listen to it, regardless of how many times you run it through your headphones.

The song “Nothing At All” is perhaps the closest thing on this album to a prototypical Perfume Genius song on SET MY HEART ON FIRE IMMEDIATELY, feeling at times as though it could fit neatly onto NO SHAPE. The vocal mix sounds alternatingly distant and claustrophobically close, and the synthesizers behind it phase in and out of hazy opacity, creating a distinct texture that only Perfume Genius songs can offer. The insistent maximalism of “Some Dream” by comparison provides a powerful punch towards the end of the record, starting the song with a very sparse piano arrangement punctuated with heavy bass drones before launching into a raucous middle portion dominated by driving piano chords and suffocating, distorted synthesizers. As if that weren’t enough, the track ends with a hauntingly dissonant saxophone section, serene strings floating above the mix, and even a rogue Wurlitzer in case you thought the song was missing something.

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In a career that by no means suffers from a lack of daring instincts, SET MY HEART ON FIRE IMMEDIATELY certainly at least feels like Mike Hadreas’ boldest effort to date. With deeply emotional and affecting songwriting and plenty of memorable melodies and moments, it remains clear that Perfume Genius ranks among the best can’t-miss artists in music today. Credit must also be given to stalwart session man Blake Mills, who worked extensively with Hadreas on NO SHAPE and holds the sole producer credit for this album, along with handling large swathes of the instrumentation across the tracklist. Not every single song on this album lands as earnestly as its best, and not every song will be making its way into your playlists, but none of them detract from the record in any meaningful way, and at a very quick-feeling 50 minutes, the album never drags, even in its lowest passages. For a multifaceted and exceedingly well-crafted collection of impactful and vibrant pop songs, look no further.

Jacob Martin
Unofficial Self-Appointed Merry-Go-Round Chicago Correspondent. Number 1 on last.fm in plays for John Prine and Alex Cameron.

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