Perfume Genius Gloriously Loses Control On Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
Mike Hadreas’ contorted fifth album finds both pain and pleasure in the body-brain divideMusic Reviews Perfume Genius
Perfume Genius is best known for centering his queerness in his experimental pop, but Mike Hadreas has also long explored how our bodies betray us. On 2014’s name-making Too Bright, his body was a “rotted peach,” and even the iconic, out-and-Capital-P-Proud protagonist of breakout single “Queen” was “cracked, peeling, riddled with disease.” (Hadreas has been vocal about his struggle with Crohn’s disease.) On 2017’s career-best Too Bright follow-up No Shape, he sang about death not as a feared end, but as liberation from our fragile, unreliable biological shells.
When Hadreas took up modern dance last year, it seemed like a deliberate step to reclaim his body: To turn your movements into art is the polar opposite of feeling “rank, ragged, skin sewn on sheets.” His effort to overcome the body-brain gulf is more apparent than ever throughout No Shape follow-up Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, on which Hadreas loses control of not just his body, but his heart. As ever, his voice and music contort and warp in tandem with his anatomy.
Opener “My Whole Life” sets the album on fire immediately. Its strings, guitars and pianos are theatrically formless, and Hadreas’ dense, smoky croons about blissfully accepting the inevitability of aging envelop themselves like ouroboroses. “Leave” is composed similarly: Hadreas’ breathy baritone masks his memories of “begging like a dog,” “barely holding on,” and generally feeling agonized about lacking control over his body. As the ghastly, ambient string palette swells, he sings the album’s title not as an admission of love, but exhaustion.
In clearer moments, Hadreas sounds just as powerless to his form. On “Jason,” a faintly bluesy ballad atop which Hadreas’ falsetto flutters gently, he finds not joy in his full exposure to another man, but dissociation. “Jason undressed me / Lying on his sheets / He did not do the same / Even his boots were on” is decidedly unsexy; the night is unforgettable not for its intimacy but for its distance. Jason feels it too: “He ran his hands up me / He was afraid / Tears streaming down his face,” Hadreas sings. It’s not just these characters who can’t connect to their bodies even when they want to—their story suggests that many queer men endure trauma-based physical struggles.
Not that Hadreas is always upset to lose control. “Hold me up, I’m falling down!” he exclaims atop the gallivanting, faintly new wave highlight “Your Body Changes Everything.” When he sings “I can hardly breathe / And now you’re right above me and your shadow suffocates,” he sounds ecstatic to follow his biological signals toward the object of his affection, and as his voice progresses from clear to muffled, it’s clear that the other person’s existence subsumes him. Throughout “On the Floor,” possibly the poppiest Perfume Genius song to date, he’s just as exuberant: “The constant buzzing / All through the night / The fight it / Rips me all up inside,” he sings, later asking, “How long ‘til this washes away? / How long ‘til my body is safe?” Here, struggling to direct his physical being isn’t defeat—it’s love.
“On the Floor” is among Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’s best testaments to its unexpected sonic pillars. A press release describes the LP as “masculine and rooted, with decidedly American musical influences,” and the slithering funk of “On the Floor” owes a fair debt to Prince; its narrative likewise belongs in the endless pantheon of effusive American love anthems. “Without You” is Hadreas’ best Springsteen, and the lyric “You know it’s been such a long, long time / Without you” recalls a half-century of chart-toppers. Lead single “Describe,” a Perfume Genius all-timer, sounds like “Queen” or “Slip Away” reimagined for the grunge era, and as a deeply distraught Hadreas asks someone to describe what love and good things even are, it becomes clear that the mind, too, can be as incorrigible as the body.
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’s masculinity, Americana and bodily betrayal coalesce on “Nothing at All,” which pulses with a beefy, rockstar low-end even as Hadreas hits his highest notes. He mentions “a soul on fire” and “our bodies breaking down to a single beat” before a chorus that introduces virility only to tear it down, as repetitions of “I got what you want, babe / I got what you need, son” lead to a darkly funny reveal of what that desired object is: “Nothing at all.” He sings these lyrics in a compressed huff over a sparkling, wheezing maelstrom of growling, guitar-like synths, and when the second chorus explodes this arrangement with heftier percussion and louder synths, it’s a payoff for the ages. Mike Hadreas still has what we want and need, even if his body isn’t always there.
Max Freedman is a Philly-based, New York-born freelance culture writer who you can find whining about music, TV, and queer liberation (sometimes all at once) at Paste, The A.V. Club, FLOOD, Bandcamp Daily, MTV News, and many more places. You can find all his writing at his website, or you can follow him on Twitter, where he loathes tweeting original content and loves retweeting Jaboukie Young-White.