Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Perfume Genius Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

Set My Heart On Fire Immediately. The album title is overly dramatic, a little funny, and also deeply serious. It’s everything that Mike Hadreas has built up Perfume Genius to be over the last decade. But when he delivers the line halfway through his fifth album, it doesn’t sound so exultant. It sounds beaten down, desperate — his voice is muffled, he moans it in dissatisfaction. “Set my heart on fire, immediately/ Chain me to the dream, forever/ Turn the camera on, and leave,” he sings, each phrase broken up by an expectant pause. “Begging like a dog, ignore me/ 90 minutes long, keep rolling/ Barely holding on, now I’m singing.”

Hadreas never planned on being a musician. When he started writing songs in his mid-20s, he was learning on the fly. He had already lived an entire life by then, one filled with addiction and illness and second, third, fourth chances. Hadreas approached making music with a reverence — he has a voice that sounds like it’s barely holding on, and he used that quiver, that tenderness, to make songs that sounded like confessionals. But as Hadreas has gotten more assured in his abilities over the years, his music became less confessional and more declarative.

He started out making fragile piano ballads, but now he’s an expert world-builder. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is his biggest canvas yet. As his music has become less about specific situations and more about a grand search for definition, it’s transformed. Fire builds on the sounds that Hadreas was using on No Shape. The songs are florid and baroque, they sound like classical art. They’re subtle and sometimes hard to grasp, confident and atmospheric. The album requires a patience that is rewarded.

For Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Hadreas returned to the crew of musicians that helped make his last album, including his longtime partner and collaborator Alan Wyffels and producer Blake Mills, who has an ear for busy, intricate arrangements that still manage to sound streamlined. These songs are dense but also light; they defy easy categorization. They’re constructed around ephemeral feelings that are made to feel tangible. Perfume Genius, as a group, sink themselves into a sound. They build songs around singular moments, like the evocative guitar swell that grounds lead single “Describe,” which spreads out like blood splatter. The songs squeak and creak, there are tones that sound like wolf howls, there are odd interludes and passages that are little more than Hadreas mumbling and whispering and searching into the ether to find the right words to describe what he’s feeling. But it all sounds purposeful, every pregnant pause and operatic flourish does something or says something, even if it’s hard to pin down its exact function.

The album plays out less urgently than its title might suggest. It’s a languid journey, but a vivid one. Hadreas’ songs are filled with grimly funny punchlines. “I got what you want, babe/ I got what you need, son,” he chants on one song, before throwing down the twist: “Nothing at all.” “On The Floor,” the album’s cleanest shot at pop transcendence, runs around in circles. It’s a frenzied dance song about not being able to get someone out of your head, wondering when the torture of desire will stop. “I pace, I run my mouth/ I pray and wait/ I cross out his name on the page,” Hadreas sings feverishly. “How long ’til this washes away? How long ’til my body is safe?” It’s comical in its excess, a brief moment of frantic desperation immortalized in song.

Hadreas’ songwriting has a lot in common with a strain of queer American writers: Alexander Chee, Garth Greenwell, Ocean Vuong, who Hadreas reached out to to write the biography for the album. They all write about the past with a bleary, impressionistic lens, as a way to mitigate shame and provide complex relationships with both weight and levity. The way that Hadreas writes about his body and others is rapturous, treating them as something both grotesque and beautiful. He’s been doing this since the start, but Set My Heart On Fire Immediately contains some of his most evocative songs in that respect. “Carving his lung/ Ribs fold like fabric,” he coos on “Moonbeam” like a demented surgeon. “Holding his tongue, I read the classics/ Burrowed in his spine/ Now I’m learning Spanish.”

Hadreas has talked about how he was inspired by his experience with the dance project The Sun Still Burns Here, which required him to act in concert with a whole mass of other bodies, become just one moving part of a whole. “Your body changes everything,” Hadreas sings on one track that evokes the heaving, haunted lurch of an experimental dance. “You are anchoring/ Until you fit beneath me/ And you’re breaking like a wave.” With Perfume Genius, Hadreas has become part of something larger than himself. He’s found a community of musicians and artists that offer up a creative give-and-take. As his music has become more ambitious, he’s found the right group of people to enact his vision.

If No Shape was about finally learning to settle down, then Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is about extending your roots, finding stability within a community, and looking back on how you managed to get there. The album feels like a series of snapshots of a younger Hadreas, told by a Hadreas that has sometimes more, sometimes less of a handle on where life ends up and why. On “Jason,” a potentially seedy interaction is not admonished but instead treated with a wistful innocence. “I was proud to seem warm and mothering just for a night, even through all the drink,” Hadreas sings. “We were 23, Breeders on CD/ When we woke up, he just asked me to leave/ I stole $20 from his blue jeans/ I’m pretty sure that he saw me.” Hadreas sounds like he’s finally letting himself celebrate a past self, or at least not holding onto the bitterness and regret that can hollow someone out.

“Half of my whole life is gone,” he acknowledges in the album’s opening lines. “Let it drift and wash away/ It was just a dream I had.” Hadreas has built himself a catalog of songs that mythologize his sadness into something beautiful. The music feels like a necessary part of letting go, a way to acknowledge the past while still moving on. In putting it out into the world, Hadreas invites you to look on at his own self-immolation and learn something from it, find solace in a reflection of your own personal struggles. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately doesn’t represent an end to that struggle, but instead offers a glimpse of a life that’s only half lived.

Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is out 5/15 via Matador. Pre-order it here.