Review Summary: Expansive and artistic, but also a little timid.
If there’s one thing I’ve realized about Mike Hadreas since I began following Perfume Genius, it’s that his wildest and most eccentric inclinations are typically his best. That’s why No Shape
was so immediately and intensely profound; ‘Other Side’ and ‘Slip Away’ erupted in splendor, ‘Just Like Love’ momentarily revived the Beach Boys, and songs like ‘Wreath’ and ‘Sides’ proved that those flavor bursts weren’t coincidental. The only such moments from Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
that afford me a similar sensation are ‘On The Floor’ and ‘Nothing At All’ – both of which champion a similar bombast to that of Hadreas’ 2017 incarnation. This time around, the experience is more even-keeled: the production is less explosive, the songwriting nuance is greater with the inclusion of full-fledged ambient tracks, and the entire thing is more about immersion than infection. If you can imagine the glamour of No Shape
’s pinnacles being pressure-condensed and spread across a full album, that’s basically what we have here.
If it sounds like I’m complaining, that’s only partially true. Sure, Hadreas traded in his ultimate lack of restraint for a more keen sense of awareness, but the shortage of “hits” is counterbalanced by the existence of a complete experience. Whereas No Shape
’s ambition occasionally led to forgettable blind spots, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
is pretty damn listenable from beginning to end. The subtlety of ‘Whole Life’ spells out this change in direction pretty clearly, as elegant pianos and strings that would normally surge to the forefront remain in their respective places, merely co-existing alongside Mike’s melodic hums. The song comes and goes without really inducing any sort of awestruck response, and if that’s a problem, then you’d better get used to it. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
revels in the intricate refinement of Perfume Genius’ sound, dimming Hadreas’ neon-bright whims without sacrificing the beauty his arrangements.
‘Describe’ is an even better example of Mike’s newfound restraint. Distant guitar crunches usher the song in like rumbles of thunder – it sounds vaguely threatening, yet far off enough to allow other aspects of the music to shine. The occasional bending riff can be heard, as well as the pluck of an acoustic guitar or a cascading harp – all alongside one of the prettiest vocal melodies on the record. It seems to be building towards the most magnificent of eruptions, but then it falls off a cliff (in the best way possible). This is where Hadreas introduces us to the album’s ambient tilt, as flitting strings and inaudible whispers echo – almost like ‘Describe’ took shelter in a doming, candle-lit cavern in order to avoid the impending storm promised by those opening riffs. It’s a thing of beauty, and it more than justifies the lack of a lavish payoff. He continues to hit ambient paydirt on the breathtakingly naturalistic ‘Leave’ and the flourishingly string-and-flute-bound ‘Moonbend’ – both further augmenting the case that this new, minimal approach has its advantages.
The problem is that not all of Hadreas’ ventures are quite so captivating. ‘Just a Touch’ is essentially just Mike’s wailing falsetto over meandering electronic beats. ‘One More Try’ possesses a vaguely tropical sway, but begins and ends without taking a single risk. The curtain call ‘Borrowed Light’ is supposed to sound like a beautiful come-down from ‘Some Dream’s dynamically avant-garde rock, but with no real embellishment to speak of aside from the pitch-drop of a lone string, it’s a wholly unaffecting conclusion to an otherwise intriguing experience. Even outside of the ambient realm, some of his mid-tempo indie-pop feels a bit lifeless compared to his recent output. ‘Without You’, for example, has the impact of a ‘Just Like Love’-lite – it throws nearly everything at the wall from rattling percussion to harps, but the summer warmth that it pines for is elusive, seeming more like Perfume-Genius-by-numbers than something that Hadreas actually feels deep down in his soul. Elsewhere, tracks like ‘Jason’ and ‘Your Body Changes Everything’ are excellent non-singles that reside in that space for a reason – both exhibit unique ideas and/or gorgeous melodies, but fall short of having an identifiable hook that would cause someone to voluntarily return. That’s not to say they aren’t great songs – because the really are – but there’s something
missing to push them over the top to their full potential.
All of this really just brings me full circle – Hadreas is at his best when he doesn’t attempt to restrain his pursuit of grandiosity. ‘On The Floor’ is an absolute classic of an indie-pop jam, with an infectious chant of a chorus that would be recognizably Perfume Genius no matter where it’s heard. I can’t possibly praise ‘Nothing at All’ highly enough – a song that combines the best of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
’s ambience with No Shape
’s star-reaching ambition. The song begins with a fuzzy, reverberating beat accented by Hadreas’ emotional pleas, “Our body is breaking down to a single beat / the sadness you carry, it hangs like a ghost”, and then launches into what might best be described as an “ambient solo” because of how it’s used in the song – a section that is replete with dancing strings and weightless pan flutes intertwined. It could be the best Perfume Genius song, which is saying a lot – but the important fact to note here is that it achieves its success by taking the clips off of Mike’s wings. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
is a spacious and beautiful offering, but also one that would have been better served by more moments of cautiousless joy like ‘Nothing at All’.
Mike Hadreas’ first album of the new decade sees Perfume Genius embarking upon some very expansive artistic paths. Most of the directions here are well-conceived and prove that he’s an artist with no rigid boundaries when it comes to vision, creativity, and potential. While a few tracks stop short of fully realizing his dream, that’s not the main reason why Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
falls just shy of being his greatest achievement to date – an honor that still belongs to this record’s predecessor. Its strongest moments occur when he harkens back to unbound passion – when he lets a chorus rip for the sake of having it sound larger than life, or when he indulges an ambient section to the ends of his most imaginative fantasies. The more fervently he reaches for these dreams, the better they come off on record. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
is an important album for Hadreas because it opens so many doors for the future – but if he really wants to set our
hearts on fire, I’d advise him to once again unleash the bombast.