Mike Hadreas proves once again why he is one of modern indie music's most beloved figures.
Originally published on 5/20/20.
Mike Hadreas, better known by his stage name Perfume Genius, has been one of the most consistent artists in independent music for the last ten years. Undergoing a fascinating metamorphosis from underground singer-songwriter to indie pop darling, Hadreas’ music is some of the strongest, catchiest, most creative, most emotionally uncompromising you’re likely to find in 21st century indie music. He has gone from working as a doorman and posting videos on his Myspace account to performing on Letterman and going on tour with Tame Impala. Taking his past and present struggles and making beautiful music out of them, he has yet to release a weak album.
Growing up in Seattle, Hadreas had a very difficult early life. In high school, he was constantly harassed and threatened by his fellow students for being openly gay, to the point where he dropped out in his senior year. Not long after that, he was hospitalized after being beaten within an inch of his life by a group of homophobic young men while simply walking down the street. During all this, he was battling Crohn’s, an incurable inflammatory bowel disease that he continues to deal with today. He spiraled into drug addiction and, after a few years, moved back in with his mother and stepfather and went into rehab. Finally, at 26, Hadreas began uploading videos to Myspace (this was 2008, mind you) of himself singing and playing songs he had written on the piano, quickly leading to a deal with Matador Records.
Hadreas released his first album Learning in 2010, a brief but powerful album showcasing a lo-fi, unpolished sound that consisted almost entirely of piano and his voice. For 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It, he largely retained these sparse arrangements, but added more elements while sonically cleaning things up a bit, the songwriting stronger as a result. Things didn’t dramatically change, of course, until 2014’s Too Bright. Here, Hadreas completely abandoned the lo-fi sound he initially built his name on, with a larger focus on creatively produced experimental pop songs (the masterful “Queen” is a prime example of this), effectively setting the stage for the type of music he would be making later on. In 2017, the excellent No Shape was released, which took this newfound penchant for writing richly detailed art pop tunes and turned it up to 11, crafting more fully-formed songs than ever before and resulting in his finest album to date.
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately keeps Hadreas’ streak of greatness alive, yet another creative and satisfying body of work in his discography. The album continues the baroque- and indie-pop sound he has been building up for years now while adding some new elements, as well. The songwriting here is as satisfying as ever, with all the sonic detail that has been a staple of Hadreas’ last two albums. Gorgeous pianos collide with warm synthesizers, blaring guitars contrast with soft vocals, and woodwinds dance on beds of strings. Working with producer and songwriter Blake Mills, who also played a significant part on No Shape (and who coincidentally released an album of his own just a week before this one), Hadreas has created another wonderful and emotionally turbulent pop landscape, continuing to cement him as one of the most gifted and consistently thrilling artists in indie music.
Musically, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is Hadreas’ most varied album yet. From distorted guitar ballads that break into beautiful synth codas (“Describe”), to sunny 60’s pop tunes that, if released back then, would be number one hits (“Without You”), to joyous Tears-for-Fears-like new wave (“On the Floor”), to what would happen if Peter Gabriel went in a slightly more industrial direction (“Your Body Changes Everything”), this album showcases Hadreas and Mills’ musical ability and chemistry more than ever. (There’s even a moment here that uses woodwinds, guitar, and strings to evoke some sort of enchanting fantasy-world forest setting, almost like something out of The Lord of the Rings.) One can only hope that these two talents continue to collaborate on future Perfume Genius releases, as the results have been nothing but wonderful.
Lyrically, the album covers many of the same bases that Hadreas has been covering for his whole career. Poetic, compelling, sometimes autobiographical words of love, loss, and being in your own skin abound on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. Romances end badly, relationships are tumultuous, and love affairs are kept secret. However, nowhere do the lyrics on this album get more affecting than on “Jason.” Depicting a one-night stand that happened years ago with another young man, the song details the emotional comfort Hadreas was able to offer him at the time, even if it was only for one night: “I was proud to seem / Warm and mothering / Just for a night / Even through all the drink.” Despite this, though, the song ends with Hadreas stealing money from the man’s jeans, a self-deprecating moment that speaks volumes; even if there was emotion involved the night before, selfish impulses ended up taking over the next morning. Ultimately, “Jason” stands as one of Hadreas’ finest lyrical moments to date.
Hadreas usually has at least one strange, disorienting song on his albums that absolutely stops the listener in their tracks. On Too Bright, it was “My Body.” On No Shape, it was “Choir.” And here on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, that song is “Leave.” The track opens with soft harp arpeggios that float like clouds across the sky, luring the listener into a false sense of security. That’s when the vocals come in. Sounding like a strange cross between Elvis Presley and Ian Curtis, Hadreas reaches a low register he almost never explores as he sings cryptic, unsettling lyrics that may be about being neglected by a lover. All the while, string instruments – some synthesized, some organic – make the song sound even weirder. About halfway through, the sound of a whale’s song appears in the mix – though upon closer inspection, it may actually be a bow being randomly dragged across violin strings – an effect that adds a surprising amount of weight to the song. Finally, the strings grow louder as Hadreas mumbles incomprehensibly before everything simply drops out. “Leave” is a creepy, chill-inducing song that, as with past Perfume Genius records, fits strikingly well in the context of an otherwise catchy, poppy album.
As great as the vast majority of this album is, its finest moment has to be the song “Nothing at All.” Set at a quicker pace than nearly every other track, the song is an enthralling piece of music that serves as one of the best moments in Hadreas’ discography. Surprisingly, though, it spends most of its runtime subdued, quiet, building up to something greater. Muted drums and distorted guitars provide the foundation for Hadreas’ beautiful voice, giving the song a strong emotional quality from the very beginning that is only amplified by the soaring woodwind arpeggios and bells during the hook. The song continues at the same volume, the tension and emotion building until, at last, the song explodes into its second and final hook. A crisp, satisfying drum beat breaks out and rides the song out as the woodwind arpeggios return, their impact now doubled by everything that came before them. Through all of this, Hadreas sings words that detail his willingness to complete a significant other. “Nothing at All” is one of the best songs Hadreas has ever released, without question.
There are some deficiencies here, though. The song “Just a Touch” stands as by far the least interesting song here; though it is a perfectly listenable piece, it ultimately doesn’t go anywhere, and leaves the listener kind of indifferent (this is only amplified by the fact that “Nothing at All” is the very next track). Additionally, there are a couple of other songs that perhaps should have been fleshed out more, namely “One More Try” and the closing track “Borrowed Light.” While the latter is a beautiful, somber ending to the album, I can’t help but wish it had more finality to it, something more in the vein of No Shape’s “Alan.” I also would have liked for “Moonbend” to be a bit shorter; it loses much of its momentum by the end of its more than five-minute runtime. Lastly, sometimes the pacing from song to song can be too jarring; for example, we go from the gorgeous “Jason” to the freakish “Leave” to the poppy, danceable “On the Floor.” While this type of pacing is nothing new for a Perfume Genius album, sometimes it just doesn’t work quite as well here, and can end up making Set My Heart on Fire Immediately sound too disjointed at times.
Ultimately, though, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is yet another example of why Mike Hadreas is one of the most significant artists in independent music today, hands down. Filled with creatively produced instrumentals, well-written songs, compelling lyrics, and gorgeous vocals, the album is a more than welcome addition to the Perfume Genius catalog. There’s a reason why Hadreas’ music has been so critically lauded for the past decade; he’s built a one-of-a-kind sound that expertly fuses pop and experimental music, and it makes me all the more excited to hear what he does next.
Listen to Set My Heart on Fire Immediately on Apple Music or Spotify below.