In 2020, in the early days of lockdown, Perfume Genius (real name Mike Hadreas) released his fifth studio album, the dark and brooding Set My Heart On Fire Immediately. Now that the dust has settled, let’s take a look back over his records and separate the stunners from the… others.
20. 17, Put Your Back N 2 It (2012)
17 feels like a song that is deeply tied to Hadreas’ own personal struggles with his body, but is also deeply relatable to anyone who has experienced that classic teenage angst, where you feel like your body is betraying you, where your identity begins to rattle against what you expected to be, and what others expected you to be. Sonically it’s a very subdued, sad number, but its lyrics feel much more defiant and strong. Brilliant.
19. No Good, Too Bright (2014)
Lamenting the ephemeral condition of the human body, Hadreas muses on No Good whether he was ‘meant to fray the edge‘ when ‘the body’s no good‘. This was the first Perfume Genius song that I fell in love with, shortly before the release of follow up album No Shape, starting as a simple piano piece before devolving into desperate cries for an answer. It might all come of a little ‘tortured-soul’ in lesser hands, but Hadreas knows how to put his distress and his worries into music without it going overboard.
18. Sides, No Shape (2017)
Sides is one of the most interesting and unique sounding songs on No Shape. It stutters and spurts as Hadreas and collaborator Weyes Blood trade lines describing the end of a relationship. It’s a topic that feels relatively fresh for Hadreas, even if not in the general world of music. Turning his poetic lyrics and penchant for phrasing in on such a widely discussed subject allows his talent to be even more clearly seen however – there are some great lines here, including the brilliant ‘This loop is wearing thing / And I won’t be here when it ends / Baby, trust.‘
17. Some Dream, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (2020)
One of Hadreas’ strengths has to be in the way that he can marry theme, lyrics, sound and song structure to create one magical moment where everything comes together. Some Dream starts off angelic, simple, Hadreas’ voice wavering over minimal instrumentation. Then, in come the fuzzy guitars, the shoegaze rock as he begins talking about having a breakdown, his voice stretching into the music, rough, trapped in the sound. It’s suddenly claustrophobic and overbearing, but exhilarating nonetheless before it comes to a sudden stop, reverting back to the calm of the opening. It really feels like Hadreas has captured the essence of a breakdown.
16. Don’t Let Them In, Too Bright (2014)
‘In an alternate ribbon of time / My dances were sacred’. While Too Bright has a variety of brilliant moments, this line was one of the things that I really fell in love with on the record. It captivated me, its delicate imagery hanging in my mind long after the album finished. It was the first Perfume Genius line that really connected with me, and invited me into the beauty of his poetry. While Hadreas’ songs are sonically brilliant, what really marks him apart as an artist is how well his lyrics stand up as poetry when divorced from their music. Don’t Let Them In might be one of the best examples.
15. Your Body Changes Everything, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (2020)
It comes in rolling ‘like a wave’, the military beat dark and menacing, heaving underneath Hadreas’ normally delicate voice. One of the biggest changes in Hadreas’ music happened in the time between the release of fourth album No Shape and its follow up Set My Heart On Fire Immediately. He spent time working with a dance group on a dance performance and, during that time, became much more in tune with his physicality. He feels much more grounded, more earthed in his body, and this carries through into his vocals too. He’s used his lower register at times before, but on Your Body Changes Everything, it feels like Hadreas is really embodying that space.
14. Describe, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (2020)
A blast of guitar was our introduction to what it meant to be Perfume Genius in 2020. It’s scuzzy, distorted, echoing around the track, an earthy, gravelly compliment to Hadreas’ soft voice. The songs exists in this balance, exciting because of the tension between its parts. This follows through into the structure of the song as well – the first half is hard, driving, lyrical, but around halfway through, Hadreas loses the words to portray his emotion, and the track strips away leaving an atmospheric echo where there used to be hard-hitting shoegaze rock, Hadreas’ voice a whimper in the ether.
13. Grid, Too Bright (2014)
Grid is one of the most terrifying pieces of music released in recent years. Hadreas sings here of mortality, the lack of an afterlife, and how we are doomed to this physical existence. It’s tortured, screams and cries spilling out over the synths as Hadreas gets increasingly manic throughout the track. It might come across at first as a universal musing on human mortality, but it takes on another meaning when you acknowledge that GRID was the original acronym used for AIDS, standing for gay-related immune deficiency. The years of suffering of the gay community are laid bare on this track. Age is a massive problem inside the gay community – there aren’t many men in the older generation for younger members to look up to, or to hear our history from because of the sheer numbers that died in the AIDS epidemic. Hadreas focuses in on that terror here on Grid, looking back in anger and distress. His feelings are tangible and inescapable right until the track comes to a sudden stop.
12. Alan, No Shape (2017)
As tortured a soul as Perfume Genius can often seem – most of his songs delving into discomfort and pain – he does sometimes create a piece of music so calm, so peaceful that it feels almost like a blanket, falling over you gently as you sleep. Alan is the song he devoted to his boyfriend, and it feels so comforting, the moment of clarity at the end of No Shape that makes you believe, if even just for a moment, that Hadreas is starting to feel like everything is going to be okay.
11. Dark Parts, Put Your Back N 2 It (2012)
Dark Parts feels like a big song. It might only be Hadreas’ voice and a piano, but it feels like the key point on sophomore album Put Your Back N 2 It. The song deals with themes of sexual abuse, how the perpetrator can feel like a massive, overbearing presence in the mind of the victim, almost like a god, omnipresent in their lives. But Hadreas reaches out a comforting hand to those victims, accepting the damage, accepting the baggage and giving them a place to find home, to find comfort, for he will ‘take the dark part / of your heart into [his] heart’.