Partnering up once again with Blake Mills on production, Mike Hadreas heads in a slightly different direction with his latest Perfume Genius album. Identifying and subverting traditional tropes of masculinity, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately playfully channels more American musical influences, from Elvis to Cyndi Lauper, into something distinctly his own.
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Mike Hadreas's music is the sound of a tortured soul. This isn’t to say that it’s particularly wracked, pained or difficult to listen to - indeed, the records he releases as Perfume Genius records tend to have a watercolour beauty about them, something accentuated by Hadreas’ tenderly pleading vocal style. But the ultimate concern at the heart of Hadreas’ music is absolution, maybe even ascension. His songs quietly beg for a release from a world of pain and strife, to let oneself go into the bliss of eternity.
‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’ (great title) is perhaps the starkest and most powerful realisation of this principle in the Perfume Genius discography. The tone is set from the very start. ‘Whole Life’ opens the album with trembling organs and Hadreas intoning, a quiver in his voice, that ‘half of my whole life is gone’. It’s arresting and hugely moving, the sort of sound that stops you in your tracks. Throughout the dozen other songs here heaven is promised again and again - through harps, through massed vocals, through a sonic world that is perpetually on the edge of reverie.
This album doesn’t so much assimilate other musical styles as dissolve them. Gospel, dance-pop, baroque pop, early Motown and more are all discernible in the churn of ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’, but in all instances there is the sense that these approximations are a beat out from the originals, the quixotic pastiches of an artist looking in from the outside. A track like ‘Nothing At All’, with the juxtaposition of power-pop’s heart-on-fire imagery and gritted-teeth vocals, makes for interesting reading when you think about how Hadreas, as a queer artist, is reconstituting the lustful heteronormativity of Springfield and Springsteen.
The sense of dissolution extends to track structures themselves. ‘Describe’ and ‘Some Dream’ are two of the numbers here which are more phased than planned - the former’s grungy lilt etherises into something that recalls ‘Music For Airports’-era Eno while the latter swells and ebbs through koans of varying intensity. The tracks don’t announce their changes, instead morphing almost imperceptibly until they’ve become something else than what they were, something that redoubles the emotional hit. Occasionally the album’s dreamy air can fog the view for the listener - particularly in the third quarter, from which one or two tracks could have been cut - but as a whole the sense of being led by the music only accentuates the feeling of Hadreas willing himself to something like peace.
It’s unclear if, by the closing eulogy ‘Borrowed Light’, Hadreas has achieved the absolution he so desperately craves. Perhaps not - as Rhodes piano and violins glint in the light, Hadreas ends the album with the melancholy coo of ‘there’s no secret, just an undertow’. This lack of resolution may be the point - we, in this life, will never not know the pain of being chained to the earth, to the body, to human society. However, records like ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’ remind you that you might be free of all this one day.
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