On his fifth album, Perfume Genius sculpts the sensory into the physical. Mike Hadreas bleeds his deepest insecurities into a weather of feeling, sits before the storm, and sings us a lullaby of what he sees. That lullaby is Set My Heart On Fire Immediately.
Whilst most can go their whole lives without ever acknowledging their driving fears, Hadreas reconciles all of his at once, vividly describing the unknown wells of anxiety and sadness which he can now see. All that was internal is now exposed, allowing the body, broken and battered, to finally cast itself into the future. It is arguably his most formidable work to date.
If we could see our insecurities, what would they look like? That unknown anxiety which tugs you at the most unexpected times, how would it sound? In his latest record, Perfume Genius transforms his innermost demons into a swirling tapestry of disruption, forcing what was once hidden to come to light.
Hadreas penned the record shortly after his involvement in a series of contemporary dance performances, an experience which heightened his connection to body, space, and physicality. With the same sense of urgency as his title, the songwriter was eager to translate this realisation into his music.
Thematically, the record resonates with Hadreas’ first two albums Put Your Back N 2 It and Learning, tracing his inner demons of self-image, emotional disconnection, and depression. However, where Hadreas had originally held solitary piano, he now trades for lush gardens of melody and chorus. The entire album swirls through the full spectrum of Perfume Genius’ artistic output; melting his vocal range to accompany sonic expressions, navigating genre to manipulate mood, and expanding his alt-rock stylings to their furthest reaches.
The music itself doesn’t feel as though it was created through human hands. It feels as those it was always there, definite, necessary, and constant. From the moment the record begins, the listener is well aware that what Hadreas has created is worlds apart from its contemporaries.
Opening with the resonant words “Half of my whole life is gone,” Hadreas reaches for divinity in his first track Whole Life. The song has a distinctly old-Hollywood cinematic nuance to it, like a black and white motion piece that softly flows into the empty space where all of our anxieties live. Oceans of crashing strings and reverberant percussion lend themselves directly to Hadreas’ weather of feeling, allowing the audience to watch on as we find our narrator coming to terms with existence.
It could easily be the concluding piece to the end of film; you watch on as the backlit symmetry of the frame swallows the protagonist, marking the end of his narrative. It’s astute, it’s celestial, it feels like the end.
Enter the hardened guitar lines of Describe, the album’s second track. The distorted rock temperature brings life into the record, shifting us back to reality. It’s a jarring transition, yet it perfectly encapsulates the song’s particular insecurity. In conversation with Pitchfork, Hadreas notes that the song reflects “feeling on edge physically and emotionally, where you know that there’s more available to you, but you can’t access it in that void of depression.”
However, the heavenly, Roy Orbison-esque sonic of Whole Life is continually revisited throughout the record, but not before Hadreas exercises the quintessential hooks and flourishes which Perfume Genius fans have come to know and love. Tracks such as On The Floor and Your Body Changes Everything are brimming with energy, whilst Leave and Borrowed Light return us to the deep oceans of temporality which we were initially introduced to. The record ebbs and flows, painting different hues and tones that bring the audience through different experiences.
Yet, as vast as Set My Heart On Fire Immediately initially seems, the record is tied together by one constant undercurrent; pain, insecurity, and self-awareness. Hadreas uses tempo and convention as a canvas from which to ground these individual themes, whether it be from the emotional disconnect of Moonbend or the remorse of One More Try. The soundscapes he forges pinpoint the exact moments in which these insecurities have reared their head in his life.
The album’s final song Borrowed Light takes us right back to the beginning. Again, we can almost see Hadreas walking toward his backlit frame, towards the unknown. Waves of temporality surround him, as his sings of no creator, no purpose, and no choice. Throughout the album we endure the agony of Hadreas’ relationship with himself in varying colours and textures, allowing ourselves to physicalise this pain, but also a sense of comfort. The album’s final three minutes conclude this beautifully.
“To me, this is the saddest song I’ve ever made,” Hadreas stated to Yahoo about the track. “I’ve been talking this whole time about this magic and spiritual thing that I tap into when I’m creating, but then part of me is like, “What if that’s just all made up? What if the only thing that’s happening is just shit?” That idea is really heartbreaking to me, but in that resignation there’s a peacefulness sometimes too.”
As strings and shimmering vocals fade into obscurity, Hadreas finds solace in the narrative he has spent 50 minutes crafting and observing. He is able to recognise these elements of his being and embrace them, allowing his innate, physical body to regain its course. In its suffering, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately encourages audiences to find peace with their inner demons, recognising their place in our lives and allowing ourselves to live independent from them as a result. By doing so, we find true freedom, allowing our bodies to sing a path for themselves as broken, bruised, and beautiful as we are.
“It’s all just happening, and that’s OK, and if my soul is just gonna stop when I die, then that heightens everything that is around now.”
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is out now via Matador Records/Remote Control Records.