Imagine, for a moment, that you are looking out onto a pool – a vast and tranquil pool. All over the pool, dotted like stars, are perfectly pink flamingos. They are beautiful, they are elegant, they are unique in their uniformity. After a few hours, you notice that amongst them, right in the middle – right before your eyes – is an orange one. When you see it, you berate yourself for having missed it for so long. You become increasingly confused and puzzled by this odd situation. An orange flamingo! Strange, isn’t it, how unnoticed it went? You scanned the pool, spent some time taking in the beauty and serenity and tranquillity, but you missed the orange flamingo.
This is how we, we tragic humans, fail to understand very simple things. So let’s not waste another second, and acknowledge the orange flamingo in front of us immediately: Perfume Genius (Mike Hadreas by birth) will go down as one of the greatest to ever do it. He’s a pop maestro, an art rock auteur, a heavy name to drop into conversations to show you know what’s up, a visionary, a connoisseur… and he always has been.
Go back and look to see how many five-star reviews he’s had, or how many perfect scores he’s had in an ‘out of 10’ system, but the answer is – approximately – none. How ignorant of us, us folk that write about music, to have missed the orange flamingos. Learning? A superb debut. Put Your Back N 2 It? A fantastic follow-up. Too Bright? Perfect! No Shape? Even better! Hyperbole is a thing to avoid, but acknowledging the obvious should be compulsory.
Hadreas’ creative streak is comparable to very few artists of his generation – perhaps only St Vincent has done more for art rock in the past 10 years. Tracks like Slip Away, Wreath, Queen, Hood, Fool and Die 4 You are all excellent, and are all showcases for Hadreas’ gorgeous voice and tasteful ear. His influences aren’t immediately apparent, his stylistic forebears even less so – he is an island in modern music. His music is a Frankenstein’s monster, made of hundreds of shards of stained glass. Perhaps you can hear Sigur Rós’ heartbursting elegance, the tenderness and bleakly sexual dynamics of Antony And The Johnsons, the grandeur of Kate Bush, and generous helping of classic synth-pop in his music. Then again, maybe you don’t. His sound is defiantly Queer, yet undoubtedly universal. It is romantic and sensual but also introverted and unusual.
His new album, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, is the next in a long line of superb albums. Like No Shape, it retains rockist sensibilities, and the ear for radio play. Like Too Bright, it alternates violently between tenderness and alienation. Like all the great albums, it feels like it was written directly to, for, or about you – the listener.
Whole Life opens the album with a sharp intake of breath, before Hadreas sings that half of his whole life is gone, and that he’s let it pass by. But this is not a maudlin song, or a melancholy one, its defiant musical backdrop and comforting – almost childlike – melody evokes a comforting nostalgia. Here, Hadreas seems to encapsulate the David Lynch ideal – keep it old, keep it weird, keep it about memories. Another track, One More Try, also pushes at the same pre-rock romantic buttons.
Describe then rips out the speakers with a HUGE GUITAR RIFF, as we were teleported back to the ’90s. It’s a little shoegaze, a little grunge, all brilliant – until around halfway through the track, when everything drops out save for the feedback and the ghosts of some notes. He uses dynamics in the same way that Mark Hollis used them, or PJ Harvey uses them – a direct synthesis of drama and quietness, horror and transcendence. Some Dream uses many of the same tools – loud guitars, brash percussive instrumentation – to devastating effect.
Without You, with its insistent rhythm and Latin flourishes, is another standout track. Hadreas’ yearning, earnest voice is both beautiful and sad in equal measure. Jason draws on both ambient music and baroque pop, using both to imbue the song with an elemental power – it’s not a million miles away from Stars Of The Lid, but it draws in the influence of mid-’60s psychedelic music for extra grandiosity.
A true outlier on the album is Your Body Changes Everything, which is both relentless and skulking, futuristic and primitive. It plays out like both the soundtrack to a chase sequence and the end credits – both forward-facing and strangely finalistic. Hadreas’ voice drops down into the lower end of his range, sounding eerily similar to Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe (another masterful purveyor of a kind of Kate Bush/Talk Talk-ian majesty).
And so Set My Heart On Fire Immediately rounds out a trilogy of sorts, where all of the albums are intensely personal yet achingly universal, all rich in detail and feeling, all inexhaustible wells of intimate joy. What Perfume Genius started with Too Bright was strengthened and solidified on No Shape and has been brought into full focus here, and nurtured to full bloom. Time to start spotting orange flamingos.