Perfume Genius – ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’ review: experimentalist finds strength in restraint

Mike Hadreas takes inspiration from classic pop, drawing on Cyndi Lauper and Elvis, but deconstructs the sounds in his own understated way

Mike Hadreas’ previous album as Perfume Genius, 2017’s ‘No Shape’, felt something like catharsis. Bold, bombastic and experimental, it was eons away from his piano-led lo-fi early work. Hadreas’ first two records (2010’s ‘Learning’ and 2012’s ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’) were marked by their emotionally raw and affecting ballads as well as the singer’s tender, tremulous delivery.

His third album, 2014’s shimmering ‘Too Bright’ brought a new sense of dynamism and defiance. ‘No Shape’ saw the completion of this creative 180, trading the minimalism of old with newfound maximalism. At the time, Hadreas told NME that he wanted things to sound “sort of twisted or fucked-up” and had been inspired by and paying homage to icons such as Kate Bush, Prince and Queen. In the process he’d become a subversive new pop presence.

The title of new album ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’, those six words drenched in passion and urgency and as evocative as a flash fiction short story, suggests it will follow in the same vein. Anyone expecting another big and bright pop record, though, will be surprised.

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In a recent interview, the Seattle native explained he’s always been restless for change – “constantly searching for and demanding a big feeling” – but is now becoming less “obsessed with this idea of leaving, and changing and shifting, and just blowing everything up and going”. He added: “I’m starting to realise that maybe there’s another way. I can have more, and keep everything.”

Here, then, Hadreas’ explores more organic, nuanced sounds. He may have dialled the swagger back a little for album five, but his music still simmers with intensity, rather than bursting into flames. He has explained that he wanted the album to be “warm, thoughtful and comforting.” For this he looked to classic-era pop.

Opening track ‘Whole Life’, which sees Hadreas – who, despite his youthful looks, is somehow 38 – ruminate on and ultimately accept the inevitable passing of time, is a rousing ballad reminiscent of country singer Skeeter Davis’ 1962 heartbreak standard ‘The End of the World’. ‘Without You’ is as evocative as a Springsteen anthem and ‘On The Floor’ represents his take on the joyous pop of Cyndi Lauper. He even goes a bit Elvis on the mournful ‘One More Try’.

In a short essay published alongside the album, writer Ocean Vuong described ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’ as a “soft storm” adding: “This is music to both fight and make love to. To be shattered and whole with.” Indeed this sense of duality is at the heart of the record. Moments of exuberance sit next to those of calm. The delicate ‘Leave’ and warped, hypnotic ‘Moonbend’ are as hushed and intimate as Hadreas’ early material; ‘Nothing at All’ is a more full-on affair. Lead single ‘Describe’, meanwhile, is drenched in distortion before the song gives way to an ambient stillness.

Ultimately Hadreas has, with this album, proven his own hypothesis: you don’t necessarily have to blow things up to move forward.

Details

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Release date: May 15

Record label: Matador Records

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