It’s a strange burden that we place on queer artists. Much like artists of any minority, they are forced to act as a spokesperson not just for themselves, but for an entire subculture.
It is with this heavy burden on his shoulders that Mike Hadreas enters his fifth studio album as Perfume Genius; and yet it is this weight that makes the album transcendental.
It’s been 3 years since his last full-length, 2017’s No Shape, which was ostensibly his breakthrough into the mainstream – after all, he won a Grammy with it. So Set My Heart On Fire Immediately [SMHOFI] could have been many things. It could have been a homogenisation of Hadreas’ sound, courting the mainstream. Or he could have retreated into the stark, bare songwriting of his early career. Instead, he has done neither, expanding his sound into a widescreen vision of modern pop, and all the sub-genres and influences within. He spent his 3 years in between albums performing as part of a critically-acclaimed dance troupe, and in fact it is this that seems to be the driving influence on this album.
These songs have a physicality to them, as if Hadreas’ body itself is making this music. As such, there is a real feeling of catharsis – he is at once vulnerable and conquering. Across these 13 tracks, Perfume Genius is laid bare, and as an audience we feel both trusted and privileged.
The first singles from the album demonstrate the duality of SMHOFI perfectly. ‘Describe’ is a thunderous affirmation of the power in vulnerability, with Hadreas’ voice aching over My Bloody Valentine guitars: “Can you just wait here with me?”. The track then collapses into something approaching ambient, a gentle, reverent synth accompanying his whispers.
Second single ‘On The Floor’ is the precise opposite, the single most joyous track on the LP. An unfettered rush of pure serotonin, Hadreas channels the thrill of a new love into 5 minutes of sheer bliss. Of course, he’d never settle for just a pop track, though. Glance a little deeper, and this song is actually making sense of heartbreak, by subverting it into a purifying experience. Then there’s the break: Hadreas enters the stratosphere, carried on a bed of horizon-touching reverb. This duality is the strength of this album. Anything that could be perceived as weakness is celebrated, any adversity is to be looked in the eye, and greeted as a friend.
A remarkable amount of ground is covered over the LP. Hadreas dances between acoustic and electric with glee, flitting between time signatures and structures. The result is the audible equivalent of “I contain multitudes”.
The captivating, menacing ballad of ‘Jason’ finds Hadreas vulnerable at the hands of his lover, pleading with him that “there’s no rush”. Whereas on ‘Leave’ his voice is distorted almost beyond recognition, as a gentle, airy string accompaniment plays. The production belies a genuine beauty to this track, disguised by the electronic artefacts jittering in the background. Hadreas is joined once again by Blake Mills as producer, and their partnership is wholly organic. His production is one of the album’s greatest strengths, but it never feels distracting or overdone.
SMHOFI is an album of two halves, with a heavier and altogether darker second disc. Often there will be little accompaniment to Hadreas’ longing voice, which is prone to collapsing into wordless vocalisations. This is an album about feeling, more than anything – anything else is simply there to serve that purpose.
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is the work of an artist who subverts every trope he comes across, and yet it is incredibly accessible. It feels as indebted to Kate Bush as it is to Frank Ocean, and yet really it doesn’t sound much like anything other than itself. This is a body of music that thoroughly, captivatingly and thrillingly subverts masculinity, and all that comes with it.
Hadreas is forced to be a lightning rod for things much greater than himself, but he takes to the role with grace. This album is a cleansing, liberating experience, and exactly what a pop artist should be doing in 2020.