Occasionally X-rated, PG is the project of singer/songwriter Mike Hadreas, whose music spans fragile piano ballads and swaggering glam rock as he explores sexuality, homophobia, and domestic abuse with brutal and often poetic honesty. His earliest home recordings — many of which appeared on Hadreas’s full length debut, 2010’s Learning — established a comforting, confiding connection with listeners that never wavered, even as his sound became more lavish on 2014’s snarling breakthrough Too Bright and the elaborate collages of 2017’s Grammy-nominated No Shape. This is Perfume Genius.
Born in September 1951 in my maternal ancestry state of Iowa, fellow half-Greek Hadreas was bullied for being gay and coped by painting and writing. While attending Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts, he was hospitalised after he was attacked by a group of young men in his neighbourhood.
During this time, he began making music, pairing unflinching lyrics with simple piano melodies, his flair for the dramatic coming from listening to performers like Liz Phair, Björk to PJ Harvey and watching films in the canon of queer and camp cinema, such as Divine and Debbie Harry in John Waters’ kitch classic Hairspray.
By 2008 he had set up a MySpace page and began offering his music there, along with similarly spare and evocative homemade music videos; a year later, Turnstile Records released his debut single, the sparkling piano ballad Mr. Peterson, which relays a troubled and complicated relationship with a suicidal pedophile high-school teacher. “The ugly and the beautiful enhance each other,” he says today. “Those two things are always existing at the same time. I feel that within myself as well.”
To tour in support of the album, Hadreas brought Alan Wyffels, a classically trained pianist he met in group therapy, as an accompanist. Eventually, they became a couple, and Wyffels performed on Perfume Genius’s later tours and albums. These included 2012’s even more intimate Put Your Back N 2 It and 2014’s ferocious Too Bright, which fused the swagger of glam rock and early PJ Harvey with Hadreas’s growing frustration with casual homophobia. Featuring Portishead’s Adrian Utley and longtime Harvey collaborator John Parish, the album marked a breakthrough in PG’s career.
It’s an earnest, honest, and uncompromising album, that sounds like nothing else around. Lead single Queen is good enough on its own to merit its place on any best of list but it’s the continual oddball innovation and pure songwriting talent that makes his third album work so well.
Perfume Genius returned with new music in 2015, collaborating with Héloïse Letissier a.k.a. Christine And The Queens, who featured in the first part of this countdown. Throughout the tender avant ballad Jonathan, the pair maintain a heartbreaking poise, matched by the utterly exquisite balance of strings, percussive pop and hiss, and delicate, otherworldly synths that gather to fill the song with mournful elegance. Christine is the strawberry girl:
“I got lucky enough to ask Perfume Genius if he would like to sing with me. He cannot be ignored, because his voice melts every stone, because he doesn’t hide; without him, the song felt like dying, but now, it’s more like the promise of something healing through the pain. This is what I learned with artists like Klaus Nomi, and still love with ones like Perfume Genius: you’re never as strong as when you allow yourself to be the most vulnerable person you can be.”
PG resumed duet duties in 2016, with Sharon Van Etten on a cover of To Lay Me Down For Day Of The Dead, a Grateful Dead tribute album produced by the Red Hot Organisation to fight AIDS/HIV and related health issues around the world.
That September, Hadreas also issued a cover of Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling In Love that was featured, fragrantly, in the ad campaign for Prada’s La Femme and L’Homme scents. Hadreas then recorded the fourth Perfume Genius album, 2017’s No Shape, in Los Angeles with producer Blake Mills.
A brilliantly tender and transcendental protest record of love and devotion, it spanned influences such as gospel, goth pop, and soul and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards; Mills also received a nomination for Producer of the Year.
Two one-off 45s followed in 2019, Eye in the Wall and Pop Song, and they’re both a bit marvellous.
Throughout his discography as Perfume Genius, Hadreas has interrogated pain and pleasure, assuming the mantle as one of our greatest musical authors on the body. Songs like Take Me Home and Learning probe the emotional intricacies of our relationship with our bodies and those bodies’ sexual desires while sonically these dichotomies are explored with the scuzzed-out glam guitars on Queen and the bleary ambient of I’m A Mother.
But it goes beyond sex. No Shape was practically a thesis statement on gay men’s desire to escape their bodies. The upcoming followup album, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, returns to these themes, but it also expands the focus to love itself, written from a new perspective for Hadreas: the confident romantic partner.
Alan, the final song on No Shape, remarked on the feeling of safety that Hadreas and his longtime partner Alan Wyffels had cultivated together. “Did you notice we slept through the night?” Hadreas sings in the first line. By the end, he comments on this, saying, “How weird.” After so much of your life being spent on high alert, calm can feel illusory. But Hadreas doesn’t spend time questioning this. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately drops us directly into this domestic bliss. This isn’t to say that Hadreas isn’t writing about despair—this album begins with the lyrics “Half of my whole life is done/let it drift and wash away/It was just a dream I had/It was just a dream” after all—but that the emotional space from which these songs were created is more positive, and often truly hopeful, even if that hope comes with some reservations.
While previous Perfume Genius records have found their pathos in the brutal vulnerability of Hadreas, here he comes off as confident and even commanding. The title of the album comes in Leave, a textural piece that features Hadreas’ voice pitched down, saying in the first line “Set my heart on fire,” punctuating this with “immediately.” It comes as a command, just like when he rolls through the lyrics “Can you feel my love?/Can you feel the sun?/Can you feel everything, the camera cut away?” on Your Body Changes Everything.
While this is a lyrical shift, it’s also a vocal one. Hadreas just has one of those voices: a single quiver can shake your core. But on Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, he’s using his voice in new ways, because he does have the range. He knows how vulnerable he sounds when singing in his upper register, but he is able to put on something robotic and assertive when singing in lower octaves. At the end of Some Dream, he does a stunning Elizabeth Fraser impression, curling sliding arpeggios around the final words, “Gone the minute I stepped out and looked around/all this for a song.”
This is one of the most stunning moments on the record, a hard designation to give, as Hadreas’ music aches with beauty. This has been true since Learning, the first Perfume Genius record from all the way back in 2010. A decade later, the project has expanded in scope, and in many ways, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately acts as a retrospective. The record finds Hadreas revisiting themes and topics he’s examined throughout his songwriting.
Hadreas says he deliberately set out to “effect some of that command. I love this idea of just being like: ‘Listen to me. I’m speaking to you.’ I loved inhabiting that without changing pronouns or anything about the core of what I do. I learned really early on to be self-aware about how I’m acting and how I seem, because it could get me into trouble if I stick out too much, or take up too much space. [There was a fear that] someone’s gonna notice there’s something ‘off’ about me.” Besides, he laughs, “it’s fun to just be like, ‘Fuck you.’ I’ve been ‘fuck you’ my whole life, but this is a new way to do it.”
And sonically, we hear him pushing his sound to its most logical extremes: the rough edges of Too Bright exist right next to the rococo orchestration of No Shape and the ambient pop experiments of Put Your Back N 2 It. There are newfound Americana influences along with baroque strings and rambling dance grooves. The atmosphere is plush and foggy, like a velvet fainting couch. We are far from the two-minute three-chord songs that Hadreas began his career writing.
If this all sounds like a mess, it might be—in the hands of a less focused musician. What makes Mike Hadreas one of our most essential artists, and he absolutely is one, is his ability to pull together wide ranging and disparate ideas and fold them into an album that feels distinctly in and of itself. The twang of a single plucked string or the shimmer of a steel guitar reverberate throughout these songs like a stone tossed into water. Lyrical motifs like ribbons, cameras, and washing appear across many of these songs. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately begs for theses to be written about it.
All of this is very Big. But just listen to Jason. It’s classic Perfume Genius. Its melody saunters across notes and chords, and it details a sexual encounter that becomes much more. “Jason undressed me,” Hadreas sings, “Lyin’ on his sheets/He did not do the same/Even his boots were on.” Questions of the body and vulnerability, always implicit in Hadreas’ work, are obvious here. But as it’s clear how intense this is for his partner, Hadreas reassures him: “Jason there’s no rush/I know a lot comes up/Letting in some love/Where there always should have been some.”
If Jason had appeared on Learning, Hadreas surely would have been the one with tears streaming down his face, battling trauma to be present with his partner. Instead, on Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Hadreas is a loving, caring, experienced partner. This is the role reversal that this record represents. It’s a huge step for a project that has always been about pain.
For the first time, the light has outshone the darkness.
Turning 40 later this craziest of years, the musician has been quarantining in Los Angeles by listening to Sinead O’Connor’s cover of Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina, from the musical Evita. “There’s something satisfying to it to me right now, because I’m stuck here but I want to feel some of that energy,” Hadreas says. “Just changing where I’m at into somewhere else. And I can listen to that and … I don’t know what else gives you that.”