The 10 Best Perfume Genius Songs

Luke Gilford

The 10 Best Perfume Genius Songs

Luke Gilford

Mike Hadreas had already lived a lot of life before he became Perfume Genius. Growing up, he struggled with Crohn’s disease, and the cruelty of homophobic bullies in high school. He witnessed domestic abuse, and then he had his own battle with substance abuse. A stint in New York led him back home to Seattle, and to rehab. And then, on the other side of it all, he decided to start making songs. All of which is to say: By the time Mike Hadreas became Perfume Genius, he had already survived and become another version of himself. But once he did take on the name and began releasing albums, it was evident just how many versions there could be.

Those early Perfume Genius albums immediately garnered acclaim. Learning, which came out 10 years ago today, and his 2012 sophomore outing Put Your Back N 2 It were unflinching and stark both thematically and sonically. Back then, Hadreas released spare, piano-based music, raw and honest songs that forced him and the listener to reckon with the subject matter head on. In those initial Perfume Genius compositions, Hadreas was grappling with all he had experienced in life thus far; he’s since described it as an era of healing. Even while he didn’t necessarily imagine himself as a musician, he had found a new conduit through which to process trauma, and those who found his music found that for themselves, too.

By the time Hadreas released Too Bright in 2014, he was already a critically lauded songwriter. The man who didn’t necessarily set out to be a professional musician, and who was almost 30 when he released Learning, was on his way to becoming one of the most beloved and respected artists of his time. Too Bright became a pivot. Aided by the production of Portishead’s Adrian Utley, Hadreas expanded his sound with a dark synth sheen, and increasingly bigger and bolder arrangements and melodies. People throw the word “singular” around with artists a lot, but it steadily became truer and truer about Hadreas — he wasn’t really tapped into any specific wavelength of ’10s indie, but was a man with his own sound and viewpoint and what was obviously a colossal level of songwriting talent.

Then things really changed with 2017’s No Shape. The album was no less idiosyncratic — with a sort of glistening and autumnal baroque atmosphere dominating much of it aesthetically — and yet it became the sort of level-up that raises an artist’s name to a totally different echelon. Suddenly, you started hearing Perfume Genius songs everywhere — whether on singing competitions or, frequently, in trailers or movies featuring coming-of-age stories. “Slip Away,” “Otherside” — Hadreas had begun making huge, cinematic music that more than ever before conveyed the possibility of transformation that he himself had harnessed in his own life.

From the confessional and reflective qualities of his first two albums to the lush and romantic sounds of his most recent works, Hadreas has already built up an enviable and adventurous career. But it wasn’t just about the openness and eventual comfort his music could provide — it was also about the life experiences that many could relate to in his lyrics.

For much of his career, Hadreas has been written about as a gay artist, and praised for how his identity manifested in his work. And while there can be a complicated, almost reductive danger to talking about an artist just in those terms — a pressure Hadreas reflected on when we interviewed him all the way back in 2014 — there was also something quietly revolutionary in how Hadreas’ work traced the early trials of being attacked for who you are, to the anger and themes of gay panic on Too Bright, to the eventual victory and tenuous peace of domestic bliss he detailed on No Shape. In everything from sobriety to his rebirth as a musician, Hadreas has been tied to his longtime partner (and bandmate) Alan Wyffels — and by No Shape, they’d had years of being happy and healthy together. It was one more aspect people adored about the album, that it got to tell a story so may gay artists had not been allowed, or able, to tell before.

Everything set the stage for this year’s Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, the fifth Perfume Genius album and something that feels like a conclusion of an arc begun 10 years ago with Learning — or, perhaps, the beginning of everything else that’s still to come. There are themes and perennial struggles that still pervade Hadreas’ music; one fallout of his Crohn’s disease is his frequent writing about the limitations of our bodies and how they turn against us, a concept still present in Hadreas’ most recent work and, perhaps, one he’s just now starting to make peace with. But at the same time, the story of Perfume Genius thus far has been like watching someone come into their own and their world opening up in response. Across Set My Heart, Hadreas flits amongst a variety of sounds and moods like never before. Over and over it suggests how many different directions Perfume Genius could go in from here.

“I didn’t think I was going to do this, and I didn’t trust myself for a long time,” Hadreas said of his career when I interviewed him a couple months ago. “Maybe even this record is the first time where I was like, ‘I’m a musician!’ I was kind of figuring it out in front of everybody this whole time.” Maybe that’s a little bit of self-deprecation, or maybe that’s been part of the joy of watching Perfume Genius evolve over the last decade. But either way, it only makes you excited to think what Hadreas’ career could look like in another 10 years: If this was his process of becoming, who knows what he could pull off now that he’s arrived. So, in honor of Learning’s anniversary and the recent release of Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, we’re looking back at one of the richest careers in recent memory, highlighting 10 of the best Perfume Genius songs.

10. “Mr. Peterson” (From Learning, 2010)

When Learning came out, “Mr. Peterson” was quickly identified as one of the album’s most evocative songs. Supposedly both inspired by Hadreas’ own life and partly fictionalized, it tells the story of a high school teacher taking advantage of a student sexually, and later dying by suicide. It’s emblematic of Hadreas’ early work — harrowing, intense subject matter with nothing to sugarcoat it but a bit of lo-fi hiss. All these years later it remains a reminder of Hadreas’ inherent skill — as a character sketch, “Mr. Peterson” is as economical as it is tragic — as well as a tension that’s defined much of Hadreas’ work, the darker corners of human experience revisited through pretty pop songs.

9. “Die 4 You” (From No Shape, 2017)

There are a few different kind of love songs on No Shape, from the swoon of “Just Like Love” to the plainspoken tribute “Alan.” “Die 4 You” still feels like something of an outlier even as Perfume Genius’ palette continues to expand. It’s a song that puts the whole “love is a drug” notion into sonic form, with the narcotic atmosphere of trip-hop and a carefully deployed instrumental that’s all sinew and suggestion. “Die 4 You” has him above sensual grooves and synths that are somehow both distorted and crystalline, Hadreas himself not so much conveying concrete thoughts as translating ecstasy into hushed and elongated syllables. And just as the song slithers forward, it slithers right into your head too, sneakily becoming one of Hadreas’ most unshakable compositions.

8. “On The Floor” (From Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, 2020)

From a different album, here’s another kind of love song and another kind of outlier. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is the most diverse Perfume Genius album in most ways — sometimes it feels like each song does something totally different than the rest. But even so, there’s never been a Perfume Genius song quite like “On The Floor.” It’s an unabashed crush song, and it captures all the burbling butterfly feelings of early, runaway infatuation. Part of that is achieved by Hadreas leaning more fully into a shiny indie-pop sound than ever before, a squiggly and squelchy synth-funk jam that reminds you a crush can feel like overwhelming endorphins and be just a bit fidgety and uncomfortable, too.

7. “Eye In The Wall” (From The Sun Still Burns Here, 2019)

Between No Shape and Set My Heart, Hadreas had another project: collaborating with Kate Wallich and her YC company on the dance-and-music piece The Sun Still Burns Here. According to recent interviews, the experience left a profound impact on Hadreas — in terms of his perception of working with others, and in terms of his thoughts about physicality and rhythm in music. You can hear some lingering elements of that on Set My Heart — like in the pounding bass throbs of “Your Body Changes Everything” — but one of the songs Hadreas contributed to The Sun Still Burns Here itself remains a revelation.

“Eye In The Wall” developed in a way totally unlike most Perfume Genius material. Usually, Hadreas is holed away alone, playing piano, imagining the more fleshed-out form these songs could later take. But “Eye In The Wall” arose from a project where everything was being worked on at once, in tandem — the music and the choreography fueling each other in real time. Being more in the moment, Hadreas culled “Eye In The Wall” from an in-studio jam with Wyffels and producer Blake Mills. As such, it works differently than most of Hadreas’ songwriting — it’s a galloping beat with strange, far-seeing melodies placed atop. There is magic in what Hadreas is doing here. He’s written songs that are elusive or ghostly before, but “Eye In The Wall” instead plays like a conjuring — calling up spirits he didn’t know he could access, and resulting in a song that is not only completely alluring on its own, but suggestive of ways Hadreas could yet bend, stretch, and mutate his own music.

6. “Hood” (From Put Your Back N 2 It, 2012)

“Hood” has become one of the signature songs from Perfume Genius’ early days. Part of its notoriety comes from the fact that its video — which stars Hungarian porn actor Arpad Miklos, doing such quotidian yet supposedly offensive things as brushing Hadreas’ hair — was banned by YouTube after being deemed unsafe for “family” viewing. The video also has another tragic tint as Miklos died by suicide a year after it was released, an unfortunate echo of the themes that Hadreas often tackles in his music.

It was recognized early on as a song, too — even being covered by Michael Stipe in one of his rare live performances in the years following R.E.M.’s dissolution. It’s not hard to see why another great songwriter would be drawn to “Hood.” As far as that early Perfume Genius style goes, “Hood” is likely the pinnacle, the perfect refinement. It’s not even two minutes long, but it is a balance of naked balladry and cathartic build-up; thematically, it arrives at a point of Hadreas’ story where the past still lingers and one might be trying to make sense of how they deserve the good things that have since happened to them. “You would never call me baby/ If you knew me truly,” Hadreas sings, and it sounds mournful — like he’s expecting everything to fall apart around him. It’s one of the many early Perfume Genius songs that can be hard to want to put yourself into, but then becomes all the more moving when you know there was something approaching a happy ending on the other side of it all.

5. “Fool” (From Too Bright, 2014)

When Too Bright first arrived, some of the most striking moments came in the haunting electronic textures of “Grid” and “Longpig” — songs that only grew more bracing in Perfume Genius’ subsequent live sets. But there were also songs that built on the formula of the first two albums. Something like “Fool” illustrates how Hadreas’ songwriting subtly has roots in some very old-school pop songwriting. It’s almost like a lost ’60s ballad, transposed into Hadreas’ voice as he paints an image of devotion over fizzy piano notes. But then, in the middle, it drops out to a sort of celestial passage, just Hadreas wordlessly cooing over an aqueous synth backdrop. As a result, “Fool” represents a synthesis of different Perfume Genius impulses: a tribute to love, an earnest and open ballad, a psychedelic inversion of classic pop structures.

4. “Describe” (From Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, 2020)

You always want a big introduction when announcing a new album, a mission statement that grabs people right away — and it’s hard to imagine one more emphatic than “Describe.” The lead single from Set My Heart found Hadreas murmuring over blown-out, washed-out distortion, a sort of reclamation of stereotypically masculine energy reframed within the vivid greyscale world of Set My Heart. The accompanying video underlined the kind of swagger Hadreas was wielding, featuring him smoking a cigar in an arid farmland, coasting over the power of all the melted slide guitar notes lacerating “Describe.”

But the song was something else entirely at first. “Describe” actually originated as a whispered, ambient ballad — the remnants of which can be heard in the instrumental drift it collapses into for its second half. It’s about a certain stage of depression, when the world seems to lose all its texture and feeling; Hadreas sings from the position of a person asking for those things to be described to him, so that he might grasp it again. You can still hear it as a song wallowing in the depths, those waves of distorted guitars like a numbing blanket — or, you can hear them burning away against Hadreas’ gentle vocals, the sound of colors inching back into the world before the newfound peace at the song’s conclusion.

3. “Wreath” (From No Shape, 2017)

Perfume Genius has never made a dream-pop song, per se, but many of his songs sound like dreams. On No Shape, those were most often the kind of dreams that seemed like impossible fantasies, until they actually came true. “Wreath” is a bizarre dichotomy. It’s one of the haziest songs on No Shape, a flickering vision hanging in humid air as guitars and dulcimer-esque sounds chime around each other. It’s also one of Hadreas’ catchiest songs ever, a gorgeous melody that tumbles forward with the kind of urgency that only happens when someone has to sing these words, in this way, right now.

“Wreath” is also where Hadreas invokes the name of the album: “Burn off every trace/ I wanna hover with no shape/ I wanna feel the days go by/ Not stack up.” It’s a song yearning for transcendence, yearning for life without weight. In some ways, you can hear it as another of Hadreas’ songs dealing with the limitations of our bodies. But in all its effusiveness, all the glimmering sounds surrounding him, you can also hear it as a song about actually achieving these things. It’s a song about becoming free. (Another thing of note: Hadreas coming into his own as a musician to the point where he pulls off name-checking Kate Bush’s most iconic song.)

2. “Slip Away” (From No Shape, 2017)

The same as “Describe” recently did for Set My Heart, “Slip Away” was an immediate signal of the new scope and ambition ahead for No Shape. It’s also somewhat symbiotic with “Wreath,” surging where the other thrummed, but wrangling with a lot of the same imagery. “Don’t hold back, I want to break free/ ‘Cause it’s singing through your body/ And I’m carried by the sound/ Every drum, every single beat/ They were born from your body/ And I’m carried by the sound,” Hadreas sings in the verse, before adding in the chorus: “They’ll never break the shape we take/ Baby let all them voices slip away.”

There’s something complicated that happened with No Shape. It’s still derived from Hadreas’ own life, and the particular chapter it catalogued was such a big part of the album’s, and his, story. But he’s also talked about how his writing got a bit more imagistic and broad on this album, and songs like “Slip Away” could suddenly be about anyone anywhere wanting to break out of whatever confines they had around their identity and personality. Maybe that’s why “Slip Away” became a go-to song for coming-of-age tales, a sort of triumphant proclamation of self against whatever else you were told you were supposed to be. But no matter your age or anything else, there was something about “Slip Away” that approximated what Perfume Genius going universal sounded like. It was the first time Hadreas wrote something that was, simply and purely, an anthem.

1. “Queen” (From Too Bright, 2014)

Mike Hadreas was pissed off when he wrote “Queen.” There are longterm threads of darkness in Perfume Genius’ music, with Hadreas long since having established his ability to write something gorgeous and make it more complex with something weird or unsettling simmering underneath. But with “Queen,” there are all kinds of things getting collapsed together at once. Responding to gay panic and all the hateful things that had been thrown at him through the years, he weaponized it all, took it into his own hands.

“Don’t you know your queen/ Cracked/ Peelin’/ Riddled with disease,” he asks in one verse. He intones over foreboding chords, suggesting how all of this will soon boil over. Then there’s those desert mirage synths, one more sound of transformation. And, finally, that chorus: gigantic, howling, “No family is safe/ When I sashay” answered by wordless cries and guttural chants and lonesome peals flashing through the background. It was like a glam-rock song recalibrated into the eerie electronic landscape of Too Bright. It sounded like superhero music.

That would suggest taking on an alter-ego — and maybe Hadreas did just for a moment, retaliation by way of leaning all the way into someone else’s ideas of you and rewiring them. But “Queen” is the turning point on the album that itself was the turning point in Hadreas’ career. Moving past the traumas of youth outlined on the early albums, moving past the simpler instrumentation; presaging the broad array of sounds and themes to come. Too Bright sits at the center as a hinge, the most significant transformation in a career defined by transformations.

“Queen” is the song where that happened, a furious towering thing that could only have come after Hadreas walked through the past, and that blew open the doors for him to do whatever he wanted next. Maybe that does make it superhero music, maybe that makes it apotheosis. But looking back across the decade and everything that Hadreas was able to achieve, it really just sounds like him becoming who he was always meant to be.

Listen to the playlist on Spotify.

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