Hadreas continues to embrace pop while simultaneously bending it to his will.
On Learning, his 2010 debut as Perfume Genius, Mike Hadreas crafted a harrowing set of songs about being young and gay and surviving addiction and abuse, produced so delicately that it sounded as if they might shatter if he sang them too loudly. On each of the three albums that followed, Perfume Genius grew bolder, and by the time of 2017’s radiant No Shape, it was easy to see similarities between Hadreas’ work and Elliott Smith’s—not just for the intimacy of their music and lyrics but for how quickly and confidently both progressed from their lo-fi roots to a dazzling, full-bodied form of pop. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, the fifth Perfume Genius album, doesn’t herald another sonic reinvention the way its predecessors did, but a refinement: like Smith’s final records, it finds Hadreas continuing to embrace pop while simultaneously bending it to his will.
Granted, it’s difficult to imagine what would have come beyond No Shape. Hadreas recorded that album with producer Blake Mills, who had previously coaxed vivid, twisted sounds out of Jesca Hoop, Alabama Shakes and John Legend. To this day, few albums from the last 20 years feel as phantasmagorical on the ears as No Shape. (Just look at its cover art.) Mills is back behind the boards for Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, but instead of diving deeper into that delirious or overgrown sound, he and Hadreas are paring things away. True to its own cover art—a Dorothea Lange-esque photograph as opposed to a Romantic painting—Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is a bit starker and a bit darker than No Shape: the glossy, sometimes disorienting aura that hung over songs like “Go Ahead” and “Alan” is lifted, giving the instruments room to breathe. You can always tell whether a sound is coming from a guitar or a piano or a violin.
Where Set My Heart on Fire Immediately distinguishes itself is in its themes and influences. Notions of masculinity play a greater role here than on past Perfume Genius records, although this is not at all to say those records were unmanly. Though Hadreas has drawn on camp and drag culture in his songwriting and stage presence in the past (“No family is safe/ When I sashay,” he sang as he crowned himself “Queen”), he never did so in a way that played into the regressive elements of the “effeminate gay male” stereotype. The masculinity that Hadreas presents on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is, in his own words, “more free and spiritually wild,” but it’s tender and thoughtful and comfortable showing its vulnerabilities. Lead single “Describe”—whose freakish fusion of sludgy grunge and twangy Americana unexpectedly fades into ghostly ambiance—is about being so lost in depression’s dark fog that you forget how it feels to not be melancholy, while the album’s back half is full of hushed numbers like “Just a Touch,” “One More Try” and “Borrowed Light” that sound as gorgeous and withdrawn as Talk Talk’s quietest moments.
“Jason,” a similarly intimate track, contains the album’s most overt allusions to Hadreas’ sexuality, which is less of a focal point here than it was on earlier works. While Set My Heart on Fire Immediately mostly shifts Hadreas’ sexuality to the background, this doesn’t feel like marginalization so much as normalization—a queer songwriter making their queerness simply a part of the narrative rather than the entire narrative. “On the Floor,” like a few other tracks on the album, is clearly sung about another man, but aside from the references to “his face” and “his name,” the song captures the universal experience of crushing on someone, in all of its agony and ecstasy, and sets it to a joyous and slippery funk-pop strut. Similarly, the shimmering “Without You,” the dramatic “Your Body Changes Everything” and the brooding “Nothing at All” feel like they could have been sung by anyone, to anyone. They’re all spectacular songs, and they already feel like some of the best that Hadreas has ever written; that said, some may hear them and bemoan the absence of a triumphantly queer anthem like “Queen” or “Slip Away,” or wish that Hadreas had made something more radical.
But it would be bad form, even harmful, to try to argue that Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is “not queer enough”—and even if it weren’t, it would be missing the point. With his fifth album, Hadreas has rendered another vivid and evocative chapter not just in his musical career but his existence as a gay man. If songs like “On the Floor” and “Without You” feel like a bit of a return to earth after No Shape’s divine escapism, they also represent another step away from a life defined by what Hadreas fears and another step toward one defined by what (and who) he loves. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately may be more of a slow burn than a raging inferno, but it still glows with warmth and light, encouraging others to set their own hearts ablaze.