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.
10. Too Bright, Too Bright (2014)
In the second half of Perfume Genius’ third album, Too Bright, things take a dark turn as he delves into the electropulse 1-2 punch of Grid and Longpig followed by the dark and atmospheric I’m A Mother. Then, out of the darkness emerge little pinpricks of light, the clouds begin to fade away, and in comes the welcome piano of the title track. It’s a much-appreciated break from the previous few songs, a moment to catch your breath as Hadreas’ beautiful voice soars in its purest form.
9. Without You, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (2020)
Without You feels like one of the happiest, most upbeat songs in the Perfume Genius discography, but even then, Hadreas doesn’t shy away from hard-hitting topics. While on the surface level it might just appear to be a song marking the reunion of too lovers or friends, Hadreas is actually singing to his own body here. I have mentioned previously about his body issues, but this feels like the joyous culmination of him starting to feel comfortable with putting those issues to bed.
8. Put Your Back N2 It, Put Your Back N 2 It (2012)
This feels like the most aching, simple love song in Hadreas’ discography. A message addressed directly to a wounded partner, it’s tender, accepting the darkness and returning unconditional love. All Hadreas asks for is permission. Let him ‘be the one to turn you on’. It’s such a simple, clear statement, but it’s powerful in its plainness. Hadreas, who normally wraps his feelings in metaphor and symbolism lays his heart bare for his partner. It feels like an effort to comfort that person – there can be no doubt left in their mind regarding Hadreas’ feelings and desires.
7. All Along, Too Bright (2012)
What a brilliant line to open a song. ‘What drives me to my man / earthly or divine or otherwise / is no business of mine’. Here, at the end of the relationship, Hadreas lays some of his darkest feelings bare for the listener – ‘deep down, I never did feel right, even now’. There’s a clear lack of resistance here – Hadreas is resigned to the end of things, offering up a multitude of reasons why things have ended before reaffirming that ‘I don’t need your love’ and ‘you wasted my time’.
6. Otherside, No Shape (2017)
It starts with simple piano notes. Then in comes Hadreas’ trembling voice, strung up in the air and tense. So far, very similar to his previous work. Then, a blast of light, strings, choirs and bells all sounding. It feels as if the heavens themselves have invaded the song, blasting their way through into the song, opening us up to a whole new world of Perfume Genius’ music. There’s only one word to describe the opening track of fourth album, No Shape – magical.
5. Nothing At All, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (2020)
The tracklisting on 2020’s Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is interesting – it starts off strong, packing in the pop and rock driven tracks at the front, before settling into a languid middle section of Moonbend and Just A Touch. Here, the pace that has been building in the album thus far drops out and slows to a crawl. Honestly, it’s a little bit of a slog. But then, as Just A Touch fades out, you hear a rumbling. That distorted guitar from Describe is back with a vengeance, this time angrier, more driven, higher tempo than before. ‘Right on time’, declares Perfume Genius, and you can’t help but agree – Nothing At All is pure excitement injected into the album at the time it needs it most.
4. Slip Away, No Shape (2017)
Slip Away feels like what would happen if Kate Bush was a gay man in the 21st Century producing baroque pop. It sounds maniacal, overenergised, overstimulated – it feels like the tempo changes constantly as Hadreas’ affirms his desire for his partner. It’s one of the best love songs released this century without feeling the need to become a slow ballad, instead opting for that ecstatic feeling you get when you think you’ve found the one.
3. Borrowed Light, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (2020)
Borrowed Light is a buoy in the middle of the ocean, its light skimming the surface of the water as you float beneath, looking up at through the gentle waves at the light of the moon. It’s one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard – Hadreas deals with our humanity in the most existentialist of ways – there is no rhyme or reason, just chaos. While he finds respite with the people he loves ‘just match my breathing’, in his eyes, the undeniable fact remains that we are aimless and without meaning, but above all, hopeless. This is the track that ends the album, and I want to leave you with the last few lines of the song: ‘I thought the sea would make some pattern known / And swim us safely home / But there’s no secret / Just an undertow’.
2. On The Floor, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (2020)
If you’ve been keeping up with these ranking posts, you might remember me discussing one of the big differences between Set My Heart On Fire Immediately and Hadreas’ earlier albums – notably, the physicality that is on full display. On The Floor feels like the song that could have only been produced after Hadreas’ time with his dance troupe and working on their performance together. It’s earthed, sensual and desperate. Hadreas’ feels more in tune with his body than ever before (as seen in the video) and seems to want that of his partner more openly than he has discussed on previous records. On The Floor burns with desire – Hadreas’ writhes around on the track as if trapped in some kind of purgatory. It’s intense, elastic, and easily one of the best pop songs ever.
1. Wreath, No Shape (2017)
Wreath is the culmination of the themes Hadreas’ explored on his first four albums, that feeling of unease in the body, that discomfort with knowing your own mortality. Here, he discusses his desire to separate his spirit from its frame, to be free of his body and experience time from the outside. It’s brooding, dark and exciting. The sounds introduced here would be explored further in his next album, but this is where they find their roots – the scuzzy guitar of Describe and Nothing At All is buried in the mix, as strings and synths oscillate over Hadreas’ vocals. He gives tribute to Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, a song famously about men and women switching bodies and experiences, but takes it one step further into exploring the world from a post-human viewpoint. It’s so melodramatic, but so, so brilliant. It’s a song that feels so personal to Hadreas, but also so universal – who hasn’t at some point felt that desire to live forever, to ‘feel the days go by / Not stack up’?