It’s not often that a record’s pivotal moment arrives at the sixty-four second mark. Consider the fifth album from Perfume Genius among the exceptions. Opener ‘Whole Life’ begins nervously; everything’s tentative, from the timid warble of Mike Hadreas’ delivery to the quiet burble of reverb running beneath it to, crucially, the lyrics: “half of my whole life is gone / let it drift and wash away.”
Those familiar with Hadreas’ work to this point will know that he’s likely headed in one of two directions here. In fact, if you’d only heard his first three full-lengths, you’d feel confident in placing a bet on what he’s setting himself up for in Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’s fledgling moments; the same kind of piercing introspection that defined, in different ways, Learning, Put Your Back in 2 It and Too Bright – journeys through his own psyche and ego that felt like equal parts self-exploration and self-excoriation. You could trace the thematic throughlines – addiction, sexuality, mental illness, body image – and the unifying characteristic was the intensity he brought to each of them, regardless of what mood he was in: defiant on ‘Queen’, vulnerable on ‘Dark Parts’, playful on ‘Fool’, heartbroken on ‘No Tear’.
Three years ago, though, Hadreas opened up a new avenue for himself. It seems strange to think of No Shape as the first genuinely extroverted work by somebody whose catalogue and live performances to that point had long been flecked with theatricality and flamboyance, but that is precisely what it was; an album built on a ballast of love and warmth, with the more typical facets of a Perfume Genius record – nervousness, self-deprecation, dark humour – now secondary colours, used for inflection and punctuation rather than foundation. Chiefly a paean to his partner and collaborator Alan Wyffels, No Shape saw Hadreas redrawing his own emotional and musical boundaries to make them far more generous.
Which is why, as the curtain comes up on Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, it’s hard to know which path he’ll take; assumptions that he’d carry on roaring down the triumphant open highway of No Shape are shrouded in doubt by the delicate uncertainty of the first few lines of ‘Whole Life’, as if Hadreas, reckoning with his own mortality, is toying with the idea of retreating into the choppier waters of his early career. Then, twinkly piano and softly-strummed guitar conspire to turn the track into a lullaby, and a gentle confidence rises in Hadreas’ croon. He’s choosing not to agonise over the past – he’s telling various younger selves that it was all OK, after all.
So begins a record about beginnings, about the start of a personal second act, and a celebration of survival and self-care. Like No Shape, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately feels forward-facing; unlike No Shape, it trades not in bombast and extravagance but in restraint and thoughtfulness. It’s not that the record’s title is misleading – more on that later – but rather that, in facing a mid-life crossroads as he approaches forty, Hadreas has chosen to view both the past and the future through a softer lens. ‘Describe’, which offsets the crunch of the electric guitar with woozy slide and trills of harpsichord, has him imagining how he’d paint a picture of contentment to former versions of himself that were so mired in depression that a return to a sunnier mindset didn’t seem possible.
There’s a leitmotif, meanwhile, in the form of the lilting, arpeggiated melodies that are the beating heart of ‘Whole Life’ – they also form the basis for the dreamy, lyrically abstract ‘Leave’, and crop up again on the pretty, minimal ‘Moonbend’. More obliquely, there’s bass lines that carry that undulating quality – ‘Just a Touch’, especially. The effect is consistently soothing; Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, in large parts, serves as musical calamine lotion, taking the sting out of old wounds and calming the fear of new ones.
Elsewhere, there’s evidence that Hadreas’ venture into a different area of performance art has had a profound effect on both his music and his outlook. Last year, he worked with the choreographer Kate Wallich on The Sun Still Burns Here, an ambitious dance piece that he scored, co-directed and starred in, alongside members of Wallich’s company, The YC. Hadreas’ relationship to his own body has been a significant part of his writing for as long as Perfume Genius has been a going concern – the word itself would be writ large if you were to put all of his lyrics into a word cloud – and after having spent so long detailing his struggles both with body image and debilitating chronic illness, there’s a sense of triumph and resolution here, as he not only brims with a new confidence of his own – one born out of the discipline and the tactility that The Sun Still Burns Here demanded of him – but with an enhanced respect, too, for the form of others, as evidenced by the searingly intimate ‘Your Body Changes Everything’. The insecurity that dominated so many of Hadreas’ past lives has given way to an appreciation of the power of physicality.
‘On the Floor’ is similarly forthright about that aspect of Hadreas’ sexuality, but it’s also the axis around which his latest musical reinvention revolves. Having taken some of his more sweepingly dramatic tendencies to their logical conclusion by the end of Too Bright, he subverted and had fun with them throughout No Shape, particularly across its first half, having the audacity not only to gravitate towards pop but to take his cues from the genre’s artiest gatekeepers – Prince, Bush, Bowie. He’s re-teamed with producer Blake Mills this time out, but the grand gestures have been traded in for tasteful trips across genre borders.
It’s ‘On the Floor’ that’s at the heart of it all – it’s a nimble exercise in groove that recalls Odd Blood-era Yeasayer – but rather than setting the tone stylistically for the rest of the record, it’s instead a signifier of how fearlessly Hadreas has followed his nose. There’s again a palpable pop influence, but this time, he’s harking back to the genre’s all-American roots, turning back the clock further even than the British Invasion to imbue ‘Without You’ with the timeless elegance of the Everly Brothers, and suffuse the eye-opening slow burner ‘Jason’ with stately, baroque echoes of pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys. As if to cement an album-wide preoccupation with the fragility of masculinity, meanwhile, he conjures Elvis Presley on the shadowy fifties waltz ‘One More Try’, which could be seamlessly swapped in for Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ in that pivotal scene from Blue Velvet.
Those kinds of realisations are key to unravelling Set My Heart On Fire Immediately. The title is quintessentially Perfume Genius – blisteringly dramatic, and knowingly arch. It suggests a return to the sonic effervescence of No Shape, and to the emotional intensity of the records that preceded it. Neither materialise, and instead, this would appear on the face of it to be the most measured that Hadreas has ever sounded. Repeat listens, though, reveal that to be a mirage.
In reality, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately burns with passion – desirous of musical exploration at every turn, but more crucially, driven by a craving to wrestle with issues bigger than himself. It’s about not just what it means to be queer, but what it means to be a man, and not just how self-acceptance can keep regret’s wolves from the door, but how he can harness that to chart a positive and courageous path forward, as he strides into the second half of his whole life. You’d say it’s been a privilege to witness this growth over the course of the past decade, but you’d be drawing attention away from the fact that he is, very evidently, just getting started.
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