The best albums of 2020, No 4: Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

<span>Photograph: Mariano Regidor/Redferns</span>
Photograph: Mariano Regidor/Redferns

Every Perfume Genius album marks some kind of transition. When singer Mike Hadreas released his 2010 debut, the intimate, introspective Learning, he emerged boyish and fragile, contrasting lo-fi production with watertight melodies. He has unfurled with each subsequent record: Put Your Back N 2 It was less timid, the previously muted and muffled DIY production replaced with something brighter and assured. Too Bright and No Shape were even bolder and experimental, as metallic electronics and a wide berth of instrumentation complemented songs that merged the personal with the political: “No family is safe when I sashay,” he sang on Queen.

His fifth album, the brilliant Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, is just as transformative, albeit subtly so. After working on collaborative dance project The Sun Still Burns Here with Seattle-based choreographer Kate Wallich, Hadreas, who has struggled with substance abuse and lives with Crohn’s disease, said that he felt a renewed relationship with his body. Unshackled from the emotional and physical limitations he’d placed on himself because of addiction and chronic illness, he asks: Can I be something or someone different? Drawing on motifs broadly across America’s pantheon of pop – from the melodrama of Roy Orbison, the twang of Dolly Parton and the angst of Cyndi Lauper – the journey he takes us on as he figures it all out results in some of his most accomplished and confident music yet.

Hadreas’s work has always dealt with heavy themes such as abuse and bullying, but with the opener of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, he asks to be relinquished of his trauma. “Let it drift and wash away,” he sings over the warbled synths of Whole Life. “The mark where he left me. A clip on my wing. Oh, let it soften; I forgive everything.”

Absolution prompts a tug of war as Hadreas pushes at the boundaries of his new emancipated being. The galloping Your Body Changes Everything is a power struggle, the binaries between submission and dominance eroding until any prescribed sense of existence becomes as shapeless as the song’s conclusion. On Without You, he briefly finds self-confidence, his reflection in a mirror causing “the strangest feeling … Almost good.” It’s a fleeting but “it’s enough. Not too loud. Just enough to find the trace.”

Optimism also shines on the chamber pop of Jason, which sees Hadreas returning to the story-driven songwriting of his earlier work. He injects humour into the story of a traumatising one-night stand he had in his 20s, recalling how he pinched $20 from the boy’s jeans as he left the morning after. Still, the encounter is surprisingly tender: “I was proud to seem warm and mothering,” he muses in a whispering falsetto, “just for a night.”

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The spectre of shame, a recurrent theme of Perfume Genius’s oeuvre, still looms, although it’s now dressed in the rollicking chug of On the Floor, the poppiest Hadreas has ever sounded. Closeted queer desire becomes a “constant buzzing all through the night”, which feels like a “violent current of energy” that needs to be erased: “I pray to change. I cross out his name on the page. How long ’til this washes away?” Contentment comes from the reassuring love he shares with his partner and musical collaborator Alan Wyffels: “You can say what you want but I already know,” he whimpers over the whirring guitars of Nothing at All. “Our body is breaking down to a single beat.”

The record doesn’t conclude in rebirth. “I thought the sea would make some pattern known / And swim us safely home,” Hadreas laments on sparse closer Borrowed Light. “But there’s no secret / Just an undertow.” Yet this is not weary resignation: for an artist who has been in constant metamorphosis, such acceptance feels revelatory. As much as you wish away the residue of the past, it still informs your present. With Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, Hadreas seems to understand that.