The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Album Of The Week

Blazing Saddles: Perfume Genius Sets Our Hearts On Fire Immediately
Zara Hedderman , May 14th, 2020 08:58

Slipping between almost industrial-like rhythms and carefree pop songs, Perfume Genius produces his finest body of work to date, Finds Zara Hedderman

(Photo Credit: Camille Vivier)

If you’ve had the pleasure of seeing Perfume Genius live or watched his meticulously choreographed music videos, you’ll know that Mike Hadreas’ body becomes an extension of the song. This physicality is palpable across Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, the Iowa-born artists’ fifth album as Perfume Genius. Here, the correlation between body and movement steers the songwriting into storied explorations of trauma, violation, love, singularity and celebration of self. This transforms roaring pop arrangements and intimate soundscapes into visceral multi-sensory experiences, making this Hadreas’ finest body of work to date.

Forging collaborative relationships with figures like Portishead’s Adrian Utley (for 2014’s Too Bright) and Blake Mills – once again sitting comfortably in the producer’s chair – has been integral to Perfume Genius’ evolving sound. Over a ten-year period, Hadreas’ music has matured from sparse lo-fi recordings, echoing the introspective quality of Daniel Johnston’s piano-led ballads, into supremely sophisticated art-pop anthems. On this occasion, Hadreas’ creative approach was shook-up following a stint with choreographer Kate Wallich and The YC, her Seattle-based dance company, for a series of shows entitled, ‘The Sun Still Burns Here’. Concurrent to this, Hadreas commenced work on this record; the infernal references in the respective titles unifying them. Coming away from the project with a heightened anatomical awareness subsequently trickled into his lyricism. Every stomach-rumble, touch and aching embrace is diligently documented over the thirteen tracks, eradicating boundaries between him, the subject and the song. This entanglement is articulated on ‘Nothing At All’, where he notes, “Our body is breaking down to a single beat.”

A huge aspect to Perfume Genius’ appeal boils down to Hadreas’s boundless accessibility as both a person and performer. Like many, he has struggled in life, yet refuses to succumb to strife. “Don't hold back, I want to break free,” he sang on 2017’s ‘Slip Away’, “And I'm carried by the sound.” Sonically, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately picks-up where No Shape left us eagerly awaiting more wildly exuberant chamber-pop. Recorded in Los Angeles, where Hadreas now resides with his partner and musical collaborator Alan Wyffels, these instrumentations are buoyed by catchy refrains and hooks surrounded by mellotron samples (‘Nothing At All’), rolling harp melodies, thundering piano (‘Some Dream’), slick bass lines, and infectious guitar noodling (‘On The Floor’, an instant highlight). This rich tonal palette enables the artist to paint an expansive three-dimensional setting for his remarkable register to roam.

With an intake of breath, Hadreas pensively intones, “Half of my whole life is gone,” atop soothing reverb which ascends into a concoction of tremolo guitar and twinkling piano tempered by sweeping percussion. The gorgeous melody submerges the listener into the songbooks of Roy Orbison and Bobby Vinton. The soft lament emanating from the instrumentation, intensified by a nose-tingling string accompaniment, is countered by sharp shocks of synthesized effects, thrusting this timeless piece firmly into the modern-day. Recontextualising notable sonic styles employed by musical giants is a recurring motif across the record. Elsewhere, rippling slide guitar on ‘Without You’ heralds the golden notes of the Laurel Canyon days while the dense, galloping composition ‘Your Body Changes Everything’ is a fervent nod to Kate Bush. A second homage to the English songwriter following Hadreas’ defiant plea on No Shape’s ‘Wreath’; “I wanna feel the days go by / Not stack up / Running up that hill.”

The lush atmosphere conjured in ‘Whole Life’ is promptly disassembled as the deft tones of lead single, ‘Describe’ descend. A glorious arrangement founded on contrasting textures of fuzzed distortion enveloping a beautiful dance of gleaming twelve-string guitar and marxophone (a fretless zither which produces a similar brightly-toned timbre to other hammered dulcimers). Speaking about the lyrics, Hadreas explained, “I started writing about when you’re in such a dark place that you don't even remember what goodness is or what anything feels like.” That impenetrable feeling is reproduced by pounding distortion, a blueprint for a magnificent wall of sound which Hadreas breaks down as we reach the climax. The extended outro of field-recordings unearths the outside world through a crack in the foundation. A source of light that becomes flooded by bright synths, disseminating internal struggles conveyed in the claustrophobic instrumentation.

Hadreas is proficient in retaining Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’s allure as he exudes an unwavering assurance in his artistic dexterity, seamlessly slipping between almost industrial-like rhythms and carefree pop songs. One such irresistible moment is the fun-loving 1980s-tinged, ‘On The Floor’. Even after repeated listens – you could easily lose track of time enjoying it on an infinite loop – the layered textures of Wurlitzer and whomping bass are persistently rewarding. Similarly, the tonal shift of ‘Moonbend’s’ spacious arrangement dominated by Spanish-tinged guitar and mellotron is utterly spell-binding.

There is one particular moment on the record which becomes instantly ingrained in your psyche. ‘Jason’, a retelling of sexual experience from Hadreas’ early twenties unfolds (“Jason undressed me lying on his sheets, he did not do the same, even his boots were on”), delivered in a near-whispered falsetto, against a slinky bass groove, late 1960s Scott Walker-era strings and baroque harpsichord performed with a late 90s nonchalance recalling Air’s soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides. Simultaneously affecting and mesmerising, Hadreas’ lyricism is nearly masked by the romantic mood created by the arrangement, only that the listener hangs on to his every word, right from the moment you enter this world.

Looking at the various angles from which Mike Hadreas’ image has been captured across Perfume Genius’ album artwork, we can see how his artistic confidence has grown from MySpace musician recording in his bedroom into one of the most intoxicating artists of his generation. When we were introduced to Perfume Genius in 2010, Hadreas’ eyes were fixed to the floor, his mouth covered. Two releases later, we’re presented with the polished artist we know today; yet his gaze continued to search off to the side. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, however, marks the final phase of his transformation. Standing assuredly, his shirtless torso wearing streaks of dirt, Hadreas boldly looks his audience and critics directly in the eye. It’s clear that he’s here to set the world ablaze.