With Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) explores physicality through expertly-crafted, genre-bending songs. Vivid instrumentals, lush production from Blake Mills, and Hadreas’s signature voice make the album self-assured. And rightfully so.
Starting off with “Whole Life,” Hadreas melancholically sings “half of my whole life is gone” over distant instrumentation. Colorful guitars and strings then burst as subtle distortion adds texture. Hadreas then declares “let it drift and wash away.” The shift in sound and lyrics feels like liberation, a recognition of the past with an eagerness to move on. This could describe the album’s position in Perfume Genius’s discography; while the artist nods to his past work, this LP moves forward into new musical waters.
“Describe” crashes onto the scene with heavy guitars and thickly layered vocals. Hadreas sings from the perspective of someone trapped in mental darkness, needing another to “describe” the goodness in the world. The track finds inspiration in country rock, perhaps even noise rock, showing Hadreas’s skill at blending genres. At about the halfway mark, the song’s dense layering fades and a meditative, ambient sound takes its place. It feels like a palate cleanser, letting us breathe after the weight of the track’s first half. This is quickly disrupted though when “Without You” jumps in with a bouncing twang. It’s a somewhat jarring change in sound, but the song is infectious. The lyrics tell of a fleeting moment of mental and physical clarity, a deeply personal subject for the singer that is handled with poetic grace.
“Without You” is followed by “Jason,” a rhythmic retelling of a sexual encounter with a straight man. While the song’s groove is bright, the lyrics are somewhat dark. “He was afraid,” Hadreas sings in a gorgeous falsetto, “tears streaming down his face.” Closing with a dramatic climax of strings and vocals, the track has an almost campy quality to it, adding an interesting layer of contrast between concept and sound. Such contrast is a delightful trend throughout the entire album.
Moving through “Leave,” a haunting, abstract song with hints of dream pop, “On the Floor” and “Your Body Changes Everything” arrive. The two are bright, bold, danceable tracks. This sound and tone disappear, however, when the hushed “Moonbend” whispers its entrance. Although the transition is clunky, the song is bewitching. “Burrowed in his spine, now I’m learning Spanish” Hadreas sings, wishing for a “body that you can live in but not have to operate.” Despite being one of the album’s more low-key tracks, the song shines with minimalist stylings reminiscent of Laurie Anderson’s Big Science.
Then comes “Just a Touch,” an unfortunate low point with relatively bland lyrics and underwhelming instrumentation. Still, Hadreas’s vocals are enough to keep the album going as it begins to close with its final four tracks. “Some Dream” stands out with the most structurally engaging progression of the whole LP and a masterwork of production. Finally, “Borrowed Light” closes with the album’s best lyrics and a blissful layering of strings and synth behind Hadreas’s airy voice.
Perfume Genius’s fifth studio album is a powerhouse of sound and artistic vision. Though occasionally stumbling, it displays an artist confident in his identity and style. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is, undoubtedly, Hadreas’s best work yet.