Set My Heart on Fire Immediately finds Perfume Genius making both his body and heart vulnerable, creating a profound intimacy from his preoccupations with fragility.
Michael Hadreas can seem obsessed with thoughts of his own death, whether those manifest as the immediate release resulting from some accident, or as the slow decay of a body ravaged by disease — these thoughts have been a staple of his music released under the Perfume Genius moniker. And while on its face that doesn’t sound ‘enjoyable,’ in execution, the subject complements a multi-textured approach to pop music that avoids the pitfalls of many mainstream artists. Take the standout track from Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, “Describe,” with its rhythmic, chugging guitars and heavy, layered drums. What distinguishes the song most from some alt-rock radio hit is urgency in the lyrics. Hadreas’s search for love finds him pleading, “Can you just find him for me? Can you describe them for me?” The aforementioned fear of bodily decay — Hadreas has been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease — here becomes an engine of urgency, a desperation behind the effort to “find” the affection that’s being sought. The same intense sense of longing manifests itself on other tracks from this album as well, like “Without You” (“You know it’s been such a long, long time without you”) and “On the Floor” (“I’m trying but still I close my eyes, the dreaming bringing his face to mine”).
But what elevates this lyrical preoccupation are the songs that allow Hadreas to imagine beyond the desire for something and encounter the idea that even finding what you’re looking for doesn’t always satiate one’s inner need. On “Jason,” a sexual encounter with a straight man ultimately ends in heartbreak (“He was afraid, tears streaming down his face”) and on “Nothing at All,” the effort of carrying a lover’s emotional burdens weighs heavy. In the midst of these mixed emotions toward his relationships, Hadreas often returns to the state of his body: On the almost supernatural-sounding “Moonbend,” half-whispered vocals and a methodically slowed-down electronic instrumental leave the impression of a diminished being, as Hadreas croons of sacrificing everything for another (“Take his light from mine”). Perfume Genius has long been a heart-on-your-sleeve kind of artist, but this latest album has him bearing the fragility of his body as well as his heart. It’s this commitment to and explication of vulnerability that allows Hadreas to create such profound intimacy — a sort of present pact and future promise for his listeners.
Published as part of Ledger Line | Q2 2020 Issue – Part 2.