Mike Hadreas is a builder. Better known by his stage name, Perfume Genius, Hadreas has built a reputation for songs that are atmospheric, moody and carefully constructed. His newest album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, is pieces built upon pieces, a tightly knit album that rarely unravels at its own threads.
The first song, “Whole Life,” lays down the album’s foundation. The smallest flourishes are bricks that create an emotional wall, as Hadreas’ voice, angelic but uncertain, restrains itself against the twangs, patters and swells of the orchestral instrumentation. Immediately after this song, this same soft voice gently asks, “Can you just wait here with me?” on “Describe.” Hadreas pulls the listener through the churning guitars as they pluck and grind their way through the melody.
On “Describe,” as with so many of the songs on this album, Hadreas assembles instrumental lineups that interact on a grander level than his subtle embellishments. “Without You” is a sunny, relaxed break that glides right through the album, pairing a bright piano with an upbeat guitar. On “Moonbend,” a pulsating, mystical aura is cautiously built up throughout the song, with whistling woodwinds working wistfully with acoustic guitars to dance like will-o’-the-wisps over an auditory pool.
Hadreas is excellent at creating this emotional, aquatic aura, but often finds himself lost in it. “Just a Touch” is only atmosphere, an empty lot yearning to be built upon. It’s impressive, but the instrumentation is plain, lacking those flourishes that add passionate complexities to a song’s overall tone. “One More Try” attempts to do more, but falls into the same pattern of flatness that can undermine Hadreas when he lets it.
Though Hadreas occasionally finds himself wading into murky instrumental waters, his vocal performance is unwaveringly impressive. “Nothing at All” lets him use his voice to evoke hope and exaltation in his oddly melancholic way. And when he does slip up, such as on “Your Body Changes Everything,” it’s the fault of the instrumentation rather than the voice. Here, the percussion is stylized — unfortunately, the style is that of a Halo 2 boss fight and doesn’t lend itself to emotional exposure through vocals. Still, there is a hypnotic element to the way Hadreas repeats “I know” at the end of the song.
The weight of Hadreas’ lyrics should not go unobserved. With “On the Floor,” the lyrics perfectly describe the music itself as a “violent current of energy,” dancing over funky beats with dynamism and vivacity. His lyrics are constructed alongside the music rather than separately from it. The gorgeous bassline of “Jason” compliments Hadreas’ tale of a one-night stand in the album’s most impressive feat of storytelling, perfectly encapsulating the emotions surrounding the events of the song.
This cohesion also makes its way into the album’s overall construction. “Jason” ends with shame as Hadreas is asked to leave the home of the man he slept with, and blends itself perfectly with the surreal whale calls and violins of “Leave,” the next track on the album. “Leave” feels like a cutting walk of shame, mutters and aberrant noises breaking into the forefront of the song. It builds a sense of paranoia and anxiety, but doesn’t wallow in it as the album effortlessly transitions into the smoothness of “On the Floor.
Among all the chaos of the album, there is a peace to be found in its end: “Borrowed Light.” Finally, the album feels whole. It is more than the blueprint established on “Whole Life,” but also circular in its familiarity. In the album’s finale, Hadreas walks the listener into melancholic silence, disappearing with the same softness that draped itself over the album’s beginning.
At the smallest level, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is lush without being overbearing. At the largest scale, its tracks are diverse without being distracted. Pulled together by the consistency of Hadreas’ voice, these songs are allowed to take on their own characters, and the album succeeds when it allows these songs the space to build on one another and create something greater than the sum of their parts.