Perfume Genius, the musical pseudonym of gay singer/ songwriter Mike Hadreas, has a knack for pop hooks. He can run off lush melodies with ease. But he’s also interested in subverting them. The first half of “Your Body Changes Everything” could play on Top 40 radio alongside retro-‘80s hits like Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” and The Weekend’s “Blinding Lights.” In fact, “On the Floor” is starting to get airplay, and a dance mix by Initial Talk should help it achieve even more. Halfway through the song, however, the beat falls apart, becoming increasingly complex but simulating a drummer who speeds up without being able to keep accurate time. “Describe” starts off in a similarly accessible vein but ends with 90 seconds of ambient hum and drift.
His latest album, “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately,” feels like it was intended for a half-asleep listener. That’s no knock on its quality, but songs like “Leave” and “Moonbend” capture the eerie quality of listening to music in a hypnagogic state. “Leave” is an odd collage reminiscent of British producer Leyland Kirby’s work as The Caretaker, which was inspired by “The Shining” and Alzheimer’s disease. Almost everything in the song has faded into memory; it’s impossible to get a firm handle on “Leave” even while it’s still playing. Using harp, violin, his own mumbled voice, and distant background sounds, Perfume Genius made a distinctly American form of the hauntological music of British artists like Boards of Canada and Burial.
In semi-slumber or on a dance floor, Mike Hadreas more than proves himself
“Moonbend” has a similar feel, with its music plodding so slowly in the wake of Hadreas’ reverb-drenched vocals that it sounds like an enormous cart full of instruments being dragged uphill. The title of “Some Dream,” although it starts out slow and hazy and throws in percussive piano and loud guitar, make this hazy, nocturnal connection explicit.
Perfume Genius doesn’t make dance music in the conventional sense, even if he records some songs with four-on-the-floor beats. But dance is crucial to his aesthetic. It’s part of his most impressive videos. In “On the Floor,” a sweaty, dirty young man in a tank top dances outside for several minutes, then is joined for an erotic pas a deux. The couple never quite pantomime sex, but the video’s charge (akin to Christine and the Queens’ visuals) is unmistakable. No wonder that it ends with one man lying on the ground exhausted!
Dance is also crucial to Perfume Genius’ 2017 videos “Slip Away” and, even more, “Die 4 You.” The premise for the latter sound absurd on paper: Hadreas engages in an elaborate courtship ritual to woo a lump of white goo. But he and director Floria Sigismondi play it totally straight, and it works as a continuation of some running themes in her visuals: questioning beauty standards and emphasizing personal transformation. Hadreas created a full-fledged evening of dance with 10 new songs, performed by himself, choreographer Kate Wallich, and the YC dance company (including his partner Alan Wyffels), last year.
“Slip Away,” from Perfume Genius’ 2017 album “No Shape,” has recently been used in many TV shows and films. It’s always been chosen to serenade teens, and in that context one suddenly realizes it’s the indie pop equivalent of a power ballad. A few songs on “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately” are equally accessible. “On the Floor” looks back to ‘80s Michael Jackson and Madonna for a funk/ pop sound, and in fact it’s starting to get radio play.
Perfume Genius’ early music expressed a dark view of life. He spent his teenage years struggling with homophobia and illness, then developed a drug problem. When Hadreas got sober and met Wyffels, his lyrics became more optimistic. Hadreas presents himself with a fairly femme image and sings with a vulnerable quaver. His love songs are explicitly addressed to men. But “Nothing At All” and “Describe” offer Perfume Genius up as a swaggering rock star. Still, “Nothing At All” shows the emptiness underneath such boasting: “I’ve got what you want, babe/ nothing at all.”
“Queen,” from his 2014 album “Too Bright,” first brought Perfume Genius to national attention when it was used on “Mr. Robot.” On it, he sings “no family is safe when I sashay,” and in its video he disrupts a corporate meeting by jumping on a table and treating it like a runway. The song both mocks conservatives’ fears about gayness and calls for confronting and challenging them. His interest in dance ties into this. Both in its most popular forms — think of the resistance of disco and the “disco sucks” slogan – and in famed artists from Vaslav Nijinsky to Alvin Ailey, dance has long been associated with queerness.
Whether heading toward earworm or fuzzy drone, “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” always sounds entirely certain about what it’s doing. The romanticism behind Perfume Genius’ vision has grown clearer as the fog of his early pain has lifted. On “Just a Touch,” he sings, “Take my song and hide it.” That’s unlikely to happen with an album this powerful.
PERFUME GENIUS | “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” | Matador Records | May 15 | tinyurl.com/y7m5elm5
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