Perfume Genius: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately review I Alexis Petridis's album of the week

Backed by starry session musicians, Mike Hadreas makes wild but confident leaps between styles on this rich, fascinating LP

Ignoring for a moment the well-established dangers of judging a book by its cover, it feels like you can divine a lot from the sleeve of Perfume Genius’s fifth album. It looks not unlike something Athena might have sold posters of in the mid-80s, destined for teenage bedroom walls: a moody black and white shot of a man in jeans, stripped to the waist, the better to show off his ripped physique, his body smeared with what looks like engine oil. It’s almost unrecognisable as the Mike Hadreas whose press shots once tended to feature him, skinny and sullen, staring out the camera, sporting hopefully fake bruises on his arms and a black eye.

The plot thickens when you examine the credits, which come heavy with familiar names. Jim Keltner, Matt Chamberlain, Pino Palladino: these are top-flight session musicians who largely make their money backing rock’s aristocrats – Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton – rather than leftfield singer-songwriters. Clearly Hadreas is in a very different place to the man who released Perfume Genius’s 2010 debut Learning, an album that sounded as if it was taped by the simple expedient of putting a boombox on top of a piano and pressing play and record.

The sex-symbol styling, the blue-chip collaborators: you could see it all as a straightforward grab for mainstream acceptance from an artist whose commercial standing has been gradually building – 2017’s No Shape tickled the lower end of the Billboard Hot 100 – but things are seldom straightforward in Perfume Genius’s world. Straightforward grabs for mainstream stardom seldom come accompanied by a short essay from an award-winning queer poet-novelist pondering whether music is “a negotiation/disruption of time”, but Set My Heart on Fire Immediately does, courtesy of Ocean Vuong.

And nor do straightforward grabs for mainstream stardom sound like Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, at least if you cleave to the depressing current thinking about the commercial benefit of making an album where every song sounds similar enough to merge into one, with nothing to startle the streaming listener, lest they switch to something else. Quite the opposite. The opening 20 minutes switches wildly between musical styles, from post-rock’n’roll, pre-Beatles American pop on Whole Life, to Describe’s distorted backwards reverb-drenched early 90s alt-rock, to Without You’s modern acoustic singer-songwriter pop; from the falsetto-voiced Jason’s recollection of Moon Safari-era Air, to the baroque psychedelic folk of Leave, to On the Floor, which sounds like an funk-infused pop oddity from the mid-80s.

Vocally, Hadreas isn’t above a knowing nod to his idols – there’s a burst of wordless extemporisation during On the Floor that distinctly resembles Smiths-era Morrissey, while fans of This Mortal Coil’s Elizabeth Fraser-sung Song to the Siren might recognise the coda of Some Dream – but none of the album’s stylistic shifts feels like a pastiche. Instead, they recall his 2016 cover of Can’t Help Falling in Love, which twisted the song’s meaning by setting it to a menacing electronic throb: he keeps taking something recognisable and warps it until he’s stamped his own personality on the source material. The shimmering guitars and soaring strings of Whole Life are disturbed with an ungainly rhythm track; Nothing at All has its roots in heartland Springsteen-ish rock, but amps up the distortion and foregrounds Hadreas’s desperate vocal until it becomes discomfiting rather than familiar.

Perfume Genius: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately album art work.
Perfume Genius: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately album art work. Photograph: Gilles Laurent

It feels like he’s rewriting musical history in his own image, usually by making it more oblique. Hadreas is a really good lyricist, who has an eye for detail – as when the grim, youthful one-night-stand in Jason plays out to the sound of “the Breeders on CD” – and a way with a striking line. Moonbend, the one track that recalls his early work, with its sparse sound, tape hiss and the audible creak of chairs, features a description of sex that keeps shifting from erotic to dissonantly medical: “carving his lung, ribs fold like fabric.” But it frequently feels as if he’s adapting the music here to express feelings he can’t quite articulate. Describe is punchy until it cuts dead halfway through, the rest of the song given over to ghostly synthesisers and mumbled, indecipherable voices; the beautiful harp arpeggios on Leave are set against a vocal that’s distorted and mumbled until it’s only half-comprehensible.

Whatever he’s doing, the results are uniformly fantastic: rich, fascinating and moving, packed with gorgeous melodies and arrangements that feel alive, constantly writhing into unexpected new shapes. For an artist frequently characterised by his miserable backstory of bullying, addiction and chronic illness and his lyrical empathy for human failure and frailty, it feels astonishingly assured and confident in its approach, which perhaps explains the cover image and supporting cast: an expression of power and focus, like the album itself.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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