ALBUM REVIEW: A track-bi-track, first impressions review of Perfume Genius's ponderous new album.
Since 2010, Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, has been blessing our ears with his gorgeous, ethereal indie pop/rock songs. Like many people, I first became aware of Perfume Genius in 2014, after the release of his stellar single ‘Queen’. That song addressed head-on the feeling of being a queer person in an unfriendly space, and the odd combination of pride and fear that is elicited in that situation.
Throughout the years, Perfume Genius has dabbled in many different sounds from lo-fi rock n roll, to slick synth-pop, to lush orchestral arrangements. But one constant through-line of all his work is the unstoppable queerness of it all.
Now, in the midst the madness that is 2020, Perfume Genius has released a new album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. I haven’t listened to it yet.
Here’s how this first impression review is going to work. At this point, as I write these introduction paragraphs, I haven’t listened to anything from the new album, save the two lead singles ‘Describe’ and ‘On the Floor’ (both of which I enjoy immensely). I will sit down at my computer and listen to the album straight through, pausing in between each song to write a few sentences about my very first impressions as I go.
Again, I want to emphasize that these are my first impressions. I may revisit this review in a couple weeks, once I’ve had a chance to settle into this album a bit more and see how my opinions have changed. But for now, on release day, these are my initial thoughts – documented in real time as I listen to this work for the first time ever. I really hope I like it.
Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately – Track-bi-track First Impressions Review
- Whole Life: Immediately, this song signals that this is going to be a gorgeous album. The lyrics are contemplative and frankly heartbreaking. It’s not quite as lush as much of No Shape was, but it still feels like a logical continuation of the themes and aesthetics of that album – if more noticeably morose this time around. While the lyrics read as pointedly sad, the music is uplifting and hopeful sounding. It’s an interesting concept and it makes me excited for the thematic elements of the album.
- Describe: This was the first single released from this album, so I have already heard this. Within the first few seconds, it takes a sharp left away from the symphonic strings of ‘Whole Life’ with a really distorted, fuzzy guitar. I have to admit that this song didn’t instantly grab me when it was released as a single. It’s hard to say how it fits into the context of the album without having heard the rest of it, but I really enjoyed the way ‘Whole Life’ transitioned into ‘Describe’. The song as a whole is still just a bit too fuzzed out and meandering for me though. I want a cleaner melody line via the vocals or a synth or something to cut through it. However, it is very pretty, especially in the back, ambient half. This might be one I enjoy more on repeated listens.
- Without You: While this song still deals with themes of loss and isolation (the title is a pretty big give away here), it is musically much more accessible, almost poppy, compared to the two songs before it. This song is instantly grabbing me more than either of the first two, and I almost have the feeling that ‘Whole Life’ and ‘Describe’ were an extended intro and this is the first actual song on the album. I think part of that is just the immediacy of the instrumentation etc., the guitar lines and drums are driving and present – there’s very little abstraction to this song. I’m not sure if that will work in its favor in the long run or not, but it does have me instantly tapping my toes in a way the earlier tracks didn’t.
- Jason: This song is very, very, very gay, so of course I’m going to love that. I’ve seen a lot of online chatter about this song over the last few hours, and I totally get why. It’s sensitive, sweet and also very sexy? The music here is quintessentially Perfume Genius as well, baroque pop-rock that feels current and trendy, but also classic and referential. The strings are fucking gorgeous. And the final lines of the lyrics are an incredible, jokey punchline that subverts the rest of the narrative in a way that grounds the whole thing rather than undermining it. I really, really love this song.
- Leave: This is the song from which the album’s title is pulled. After the more standard rock structures of ‘Without You’ and ‘Jason’, this song is a quick return to the more meandering, abstract elements from earlier in the album. Some of the sounds in this song are absolutely wild, especially throughout the middle and end portions. Instruments here sound like wild animals, like birds and wolves, screaming in the distance as Perfume Genius whispers directly into the listener’s ears. It’s ambitious, heady stuff, and really very beautiful to listen to. I’m enjoying it a lot in the greater context of the album, but at the same time, I find it hard to imagine putting this track onto a playlist or not skipping it in a shuffle situation. In hindsight, I think that is how I feel about tracks like ‘Describe’ as well – they are great in the context of the album, but they require that context in order to be successful. Which isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but it may limit their replay value for me – especially in contrast to a song like ‘Jason’, which I could see myself listening to both within the context of the album and as a singular piece of music on its own in a different context.
- On the Floor: This was the other advance single from this album, and I have to say I immediately liked it a lot more than ‘Describe’. It has an almost Tame Impala-like indie rock bounce to it that makes it really fun as a single. I will also admit that I have been listening to the Initial Talk remix of this song that was released as a standalone a few weeks ago a I’ve been listening to that remix so much that my boyfriend actually complained to me that he was tired of hearing it. I do not share his weariness for it, and I will continue to spin it regularly in headphones. The album version presented here is also very good, although it aligns with my personal tastes a bit less (I’m a sucker for the 80’s synthpop vibes of the remix). But still, as a single, this is the most accessible cut from this album so far. It is toe-tappingly catchy, and the vocal melodies are gorgeous. At this point, I would still consider this to be one of my top songs from the album, based on first impressions alone.
- Your Body Changes Everything: This song had me hooked within five seconds. The bass-and-synth riff that opens the song is my favorite musical moment of the album so far. As soon as the first verse started, I was also taken with the moodiness of the vocals in contrast to the bouncy production. It is impressive how avant-garde this song still sounds, even as it borrows very heavily from mainstream pop music, especially with the driving bassline and repeated lyrical elements in the outro. It’s very nice. Another quick favorite for me.
- Moonbend: In an ‘editor’s notes’ interview with Apple Music that I read ahead of listening to the album, Mike described this song as ‘witchy’, and honestly that’s a great word for it. It sounds spooky as hell. This is a weird one, plodding along at a glacial speed, mostly empty space filled with soft harmonies and the occasional, violent sting of strings. The latter half of the song is much sweeter than the first, expanding on the orchestral elements, sounding like the soundtrack to some vintage film tragedy. I’ll admit to losing focus a bit during this song, just due to the ponderous nature of it, but what Perfume Genius is reaching for here is really impressive. It’s ponderously pretty, gorgeously creepy, and a nice slide back into softness after the last few songs. It may be a bit too ponderous, a bit too gently creepy, but, overall, I like it for what it is.
- Just a Touch: This song takes the mood set by ‘Moonbend’ and runs with it, doubling down on the witchy vibes and spacey instrumentation. ‘Just a Touch’ comes across a bit more like a song (in the modern sense) rather than a musical meander like ‘Moonbend’, but I can see why they were placed back-to-back in the track list. These songs are very pretty, but they remind me of the comments I made earlier about needing the full album for context in order to be successful. They’re lush, and any given moment contains a beautiful sound. But for me personally, I want to be pulled along by something a bit more concrete than what these last couple songs have given me.
- Nothing at All: ‘Nothing at All’ launches itself with a bit more fuzzed out guitar, similar to the one that launched ‘Describe’ eight songs ago. After just saying I wanted something with a bit more forward motion, I am liking this song on first listen. It’s still pretty ambient, but there is a strong chorus melody, and the discordant guitar gives it a bit more of a grounded feel than the last few tracks have had. The way that guitar riff continues underneath the string-and-flute elements around the 2-minute mark is also really nice. The full-on rock drums of the last minute are also a welcome surprise, giving this song a true climax in a really different way than, say, the slowly building strings of ‘Whole Life’. Clearly, at this point, I am enjoying the more upbeat, more rock-forward tracks at this point. I don’t think that’s entirely a taste thing, though (I really enjoyed the most quietly abstract moments on Caroline Polachek’s Pang or FKA Twig’s MAGDALENE for example), but more about how those moments are executed here. The abstract moments feel more ponderous than rapturous here as opposed to those other examples. And I don’t mean that as a criticism, strictly speaking, but I do find myself looking forward to the meatier, gutsier moments of this album, rather than the gentle ones.
- One More Try: This is again very pretty. I spent most this song’s three-minute runtime thinking about ‘Nothing at All’. On one hand, that means I sort of didn’t form a full opinion of it, but on the other hand… maybe I did.
- Some Dream: Lyrically, this is probably my favorite song so far (excepting ‘Jason’, probably. I’ll have to listen to them both again). The themes of insecurity and fear of isolation that first came up in ‘Whole Life’ are here again, but in greater focus. The examination of anxiety and how it interacts with Mike’s social life is really heartbreaking, but also exceptionally relatable (to me at least). Musically, this song sort of fluctuates between the two aesthetics of the album. The slower, softer moments are here (and as gorgeous as they’ve been all along), but there’s also some of the most rocking guitar and drum elements on the album so far. This song really feels like a climax for the album (admittedly I haven’t heard the last song yet, but I bet I’ll stand by that statement). If ‘Whole Life’ was the thesis statement, this song is the call back, the proof of the thesis. I feel very moved by this song, and I can see this becoming more and more of a favorite over time. One of the best tracks on the album, in my opinion, at least based on first impressions. I doubt that changes over time though. Sometimes you just get it right, and I think Perfume Genius got it right here. This and ‘Jason’ are easy standouts for me at this point.
- Borrowed Light: I definitely stand by ‘Some Dream’ being the climax of the album. This song is pure falling action. As I am finishing up this album, I am realizing how fully these thirteen songs represent one piece of artwork. Each song builds on the one before like a novel or an essay. Taking any one piece out and analyzing it alone may find some value, but it misses the longer context and point of the full work. This song is the perfect example. As an album closer, it works flawlessly – it is lush, it is gorgeous, it takes the angst of ‘Some Dream’ and turns it on its head to be something more yearning, more hopeful. Taken as an isolated song, it loses that context and becomes a pretty, symphonic ponderance – notable for its beauty, sure, but a bit too slight to be fully enjoyed in that context.
And I think context is what matters here. Perfume Genius has released a very lovely album that uses its musicality to explore themes and emotions beyond what is literally present in the lyrics. It takes an incredible amount of skill to do that effectively, and I give Mike and the producers and everyone else who worked on this project incredible props for pulling it off.
However, my first impression is that this album really shines in the moments that could stand on their own – the wry storytelling of ‘Jason’, the bouncing pop/rock of ‘On the Floor’ and ‘Your Body Changes Everything’, and the aching climactic peaks of ‘Some Dream’. I can’t help but find myself thinking of the other tracks as musical interludes between those moments, almost like instrumentals. I know they are not, I listened to the vocals (very pretty) and read along to the lyrics (moody and emotive, if sometimes inscrutable), but the impression persists.
My overall first impression of this album is one of a very lovely but blurry dream of soft, pastel sounds that is occasionally intercut with moments of incredibly masterful pop hooks and rock guitars.
I enjoyed listening to this album, and I look forward to revisiting it as a whole – and again in a more piecemeal way – over the coming weeks. We shall see how my opinions change and grow over time, but my first impression is that Perfume Genius has created an album that is fully beautiful, and – occasionally – quite exciting.
EDIT: A Few Weeks Later
Alright, it’s been a few weeks since I wrote this first impressions review, and I’ve listened through the album a couple more times as well. I have to say, I have grown into this album a bit. I’ve found it to be the perfect thing to sort of put on as I’m writing or reading, the lush and luxurious vibes are soft enough and pleasing enough to be perfect for that purpose. Lyrically, the album has grown on me as well. The themes of strength and vulnerability, of masculinity and femininity are fascinating, and I’ve enjoyed sort of discovering how those themes play out in the instrumentation as well. I will say, though, that my favorite songs on first listen have remained my favorites for the most part – especially ‘Jason’ and ‘You Body Changes Everything’, which have become favorites of the year so far for me. I do still wish the album had a little bit more forward-movement and focus, but all-in-all I find it beautiful and I’m glad I gave it more time.
Let me know what you think of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately in the comments below! Also, I’d love to hear your feedback about this format. Do you enjoy reading a First Impressions review? Should I do more of them?
ALBUM REVIEW: SAWAYAMA is an adventurous, nostalgia-driven, genre-defying album - and Rina's best work to date.
In an interview attached to the release of SAWAYAMA on Apple Music, Rina Sawayama said she was about halfway done with the album when she realized that it was ‘definitely about family’. Indeed, the album has a strong thematic through-line about family, both blood and chosen, that helps to tie the entire genre-defining affair together.
The album is all over the place sonically. That sounds like a read, but in this context it actually works. Rina plays around with dance pop, nü-metal and much more across these thirteen tracks, but the album still has a sense of sick cohesion. This is due mainly to an incredibly personal approach to lyric-writing that makes each song feel like just another facet of Rina’s own personality.
Additionally, even the sonic aspects aren’t as fully random as they may at first appear. There is a distinct sense of idealized nostalgia here. Rina clearly is inspired by the pop and rock acts of the early-to-mid 2000’s, but the album is less a recreation of those sounds as much as an homage to our collective memories of them. This album doesn’t actually sound like Britney Spears or Evanescence or N.E.R.D. Instead, it idealizes and modernizes those sounds in a way that still triggers those nostalgic feelings – without losing the sense of modernism and that the actual music of that era lost long ago.
- Dynasty – Rina called this song the ‘thesis’ of the album, and for good reason. The music is a loving, if obvious, tribute to Evanescence, but the lyrics are a much more intimate and genuine examination of emotional turmoil than that famously-angsty band ever achieved.
- XS – This song is so fucking fun. The contrast of the searing guitar riff against the bubblegummy pop of the rest of the song is startling and thrilling and perfect.
- STFU! – As a lead single, this song was the perfect choice. It is bolder and badder than anything Rina had released up to that point, and it remains an album highlight. The ‘hahahahahAAAAA’ vocal riff after the first chorus is a truly legendary moment.
- Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys) – This song is probably the most straightforward pop on the entire album, but that’s not a bad thing. It may not be the go-to track for demonstrating Rina’s songwriting prowess, but there is a 100% chance that this song will be lighting up the dancefloors of gay clubs around the world for years to come.
- Akasaka Sad – Sonically, this might be the most out-there song on the album. It makes sense to follow up Comme des Garçons with something more experimental, and Akasaka Sad knocks it out of the park. The production is absolutely nuts, but it doesn’t stop the chorus from being catchy as hell anyway.
- Paradisin’ – It’s hard to tell if this is the greatest summer-drive bop of all time or the most insidious parody of summer-bops ever. Either way, it’s a lot of fun. It runs through its three minutes at breakneck speed, with only the briefest interlude for a quick sax solo and some artificial crowd-screaming noises. Its wacky and goofy, but so what?
- Love Me 4 Me – Kicking this song off with a quote from infamous fracking-baron RuPaul Charles is one of those things that maybe seemed like a better idea on paper. Still a bop though.
- Bad Friend – This possibly the most earnest song on the album, but sadly also one of the less exciting. It’s not at all a bad song, though. The melody is lovely, and the production is nice… if the album has a track that could be an actual radio hit, it’s this one. It’s not a skip (frankly, there are no skips on this album), but by the time the choir-led bridge hits, it’s just a bit too cheese for my taste.
- Fuck this World (Interlude) – Don’t let the ‘interlude’ tag on this one fool you, this is a full song, and quite a good one. Rina doesn’t let up on the earnestness with this one, but the production here is just so lush and luxurious, it doesn’t feel corny at all.
- Who’s Gonna Save U Now? – This song is a hard-left turn back into the wild eccentricities of the first half of the album, and it is a welcome return after the three previous tracks. In the context of the album, it makes sense to place those three more serious and thematic tracks in the middle of the album, but it’s great to get back to the fun. This song also features some of Rina’s best vocals on the whole album.
- Tokyo Love Hotel – Here is the best example on the album of Rina’s personal and emotional songwriting being used to incredible effect. The song is toe-tapping, with a melody and production that is reminiscent of Carly Rae Jepson’s best work. Far from an empty bop, though, the lyrics contain some of the most introspective thoughts of the entire album. The perfect balance of those elements makes this an album highlight.
- Chosen Family – There is no doubt that for many of Rina’s fans, especially her LGBTQIA+ fans, listening to this song will be an emotional experience. This tribute to the idea of being able to choose one’s own family will resonate with so many. This may not be the most experimental-sounding song on the album, but producer Danny L Harle does some of his best work creating a power-ballad moment that is simultaneously rousing and just vaguely tongue-in-cheek.
- Snakeskin – It is an odd choice to use this song to close the album rather than, say, ‘Chosen Family’, but it is a high note to end on, nevertheless. This track features some of the most heart-pounding production, built around an instrumental that is as anthemic and orchestral as it is grimy and electronic. The song features samples from Beethoven and the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack, so there’s really no way it was ever going to be anything less than epic.
SAWAYAMA isn’t a perfect album (I’m still giving that RuPaul quote some side eye), but it is a damn good one. Rina manages to be more emotionally raw while simultaneously having more fun than she ever has before. It is rare for a debut album to show this much musical and lyrical maturity. With this, Rina Sawayama has effortlessly placed herself in the ranks of pop music’s best.
You can stream SAWAYAMA at the links below, and definitely tell me which tracks were your favorites in the comments.