Self-exploration has been a constant lyrical theme throughout Perfume Genius’s discography, alongside the sonically discursive turns his various LP’s have taken. Each release feels like a new self-introduction from a talented artist in a constant state of evolution. On his fifth and most confident album, Set Your Heart on Fire Immediately, he deftly juggles and refines the strengths of his prior albums in lieu of artistic reinvention. The result is an album whose cohesion fully matches its creative ambition.
Mike Hadreas has been defined by the intimate vulnerability of his early lo-fi releases, and that emotional honesty has permeated the atmosphere of his more lushly produced studio albums. While the electronically virile, punchy Too Bright captured the attention of the alt-mainstream, it was the airy, restrained No Shape that cemented his artistic reputation. Despite the contrasting sonic palettes, both albums were thematically rooted in explorations of queer desire and connection. On the other hand, Set Your Heart on Fire Immediately comfortably navigates the sonic terrain between these two extremes, with more control and precision over its daunting emotional range.
The music of Perfume Genius is difficult to neatly categorize through genre, which epitomizes the modern shift in pop music toward individually-defined aesthetics. On Set Your Heart on Fire Immediately, he continues to both distinguish and obscure his sound with a diverse array of contributions from highly acclaimed session players (Blake Mills, Sam Gendel and Jim Keltner, to name a few). This spirit of collaboration yields more flexibility to his songcraft, as shown most pertinently on “Describe”. “Can you just find him for me?” he indifferently wonders with a husky guitar chord and an ambient country twang. This yearning for connection is also showcased on the hypnotically eccentric “Jason”, whose electro-medieval irreverence is vaguely reminiscent of old school Owen Pallett (or new school Oneohtrix Point Never).
Despite his characteristic innovations, the true success of SYHOFI lies within its ability to reconcile the aesthetics of his past work into one cohesive vision. This ebb and flow between styles pervades the entire album, but manifests most clearly in the contrast between the centering tracks “Your Body Changes Everything” and “Moonbend”. The first song features thunderous synths and earthly, frenetic percussion that underscore a mood of desperation: “Hold me up, I’m falling down/Give me your weight, I’m solid”. This organically shifts to “Moonbend”, a cryptic, minimalist transmission replete with delicate, spacey organs. By smoothing out the edges of Too Bright, and sharpening the corners of No Shape, this album encapsulates the full breath of everything that Perfume Genius does best.
The longing for connection that buoyes this album (and all of Perfume Genius’s music) is likely to strike a poignant chord during this particular phase of COVID-isolation. Like Fiona Apple, Mike Hadreas has crafted a singular, meditative work of pop music that negotiates the anxiety of the current zeitgeist with uncanny insight. The powerful singles pull you into his hazy dreamscape, while the ethereal surrounding tracks gently ground you in it. As unique as it is accomplished, Set Your Heart on Fire Immediately is the crowning statement of an enigmatic artist who has figured out exactly who he is.