Even people who don’t understand classical music and lack a vocabulary to discuss it can understand its beauty. The instruments used. The dynamics. And the drama. Perfume Genius’ Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, uses all of these, but also plays with 80s pop and grunge in surprisingly fun, beautiful, and accessible album.
Perfume Genius is Mike Hadreas whose talent is taking familiar pop melodies and hooks, sounds people of a certain age remember from Top 40 radio, and elevating them without robbing of them of their joy. Because at his core, Hadreas isn’t trying to fix these songs and he isn’t passing judgment; he’s breathing his own life into them.
So on “Jason,” you have a sexy slither of a groove, with Hadreas using a soulful falsetto. But even as what sounds like a harpsichord kicks in, the track doesn’t become any less rhythm or blues. And it doesn’t fill you with the dread of pretension everyone feels every time someone says the word lute in front of Sting. It feels organic but most importantly of all, you just viscerally enjoy the track. It doesn’t require thinking or opera glasses. It’s ready to rock, harpsichord and all.
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately also plays with the line between acoustic and electric. “One More Try” has a 50s pop sensibility, almost doo wop in conception, if not construction. Electronic instruments, including what might be some sort of digital accordion, replace the traditional guitars, but Hadreas’ vocals are throwback: sad, lonely, and defiantly unprocessed.
“Moonbend” is practically a cappella, with Hadreas performing call-and-response with synth stabs until acoustic instruments enter the track, guitar string squeaks and all, to add another dimension, almost like humans are trying to jam with machines.
As lovely as some of these songs are, there are also a few tracks that just motor. “Describe,” with it’s Led Zeppelin-esque beat and distorted guitars is shoegaze. “On the Floor” has a 60s soul energy, almost like something Rod Stewart might have performed, without the cheesiness.
The two tracks represent interesting counterpoints. “Describe” features Hadreas using a come- hither lower register while “On the Floor” is falsetto. Head-to-head the two tracks feel like they could be from different albums, if not artists, but spread apart over the record, they somehow make perfect sense.
I’m always impressed when an artist’s respect for their genre comes through in the music. For many, the easiest thing in the world is to recycle beats and keep making the same album over and over again. But Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is attentively and intelligently constructed. At the same time, the album doesn’t feel overthought or overly intricate. It’s Hadreas’ personal, idiosyncratic take on pop music, but it’s also one that’s easy to appreciate.
review by Steven Ovadia
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately by Perfume Genius comes out on May 15th via Matador Records