“Masterpiece” is not a word we use lightly around here, but it’s hard to think of a better description for “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately,” the fifth and latest album from Perfume Genius. The genius in question is singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas, whose high, quavering voice and elaborate songs and arrangements cover such wide stylistic terrain that the only fitting genre description is the un-descriptive “alternative” — which doesn’t say much about an album that ranges from string-spangled ballads and orch-pop to down-tuned sludge riffs, but Talk Talk’s classic 1987 album “Color of Spring” is a useful reference.
Despite its melodramatic title, “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” is careful and considered, presenting the most refined iterations to date of Hadreas’ ornate, intricately arranged songs, which unfold from simple, often arpeggio’ed musical themes into elaborate, overlapping vocal or instrumental hooks. His music has an almost museum-like quality — listeners seldom will feel compelled to dance or bob their heads, but instead there’s a feeling that you’re watching something beautiful gradually unfold and reveal itself.
Of course, it’s all very high-concept, with multiple themes and subtexts in the lyrics (according to the bio, “Hadreas plays with themes of love, sex, memory and the body, channeling popular music mythologies while irreverently authoring its own”), but arguably more importantly, it is a masterful musical statement filled with songs that both stand on their own and function equally well as part of an intricately curated whole.
For this album, Hadreas has dialed back the Bjork-isms of previous releases and, with returning producer Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Weyes Blood, Laura Marling and his own solo work), crafted a more organic palette, with stellar musicianship from vets like bassist Pino Palladino and drummers Jim Keltner and Matt Chamberlin as well as Mills.
The tone is set with the opening “Whole Life,” in which Hadreas’ deceptively powerful voice pirouettes over a string section, building to a ravishing, almost classical climax — and then that beautiful, aching opening is immediately followed by the fuzzed-out guitars and droning rhythm of “Describe,” which could be from an early ‘90s indie-rock album on Creation Records. Hadreas’ voice meshes with what sounds like a female singer but is actually him; he throws in a sly rhythm trick by occasionally and unexpectedly removing a beat, so it feels like the song is stumbling for a split-second, just in case listeners get too complacent.
In another abrupt yet natural stylistic shift, the next song, “Without You,” is driven by acoustic guitars and multitracked vocals and has an almost Jimmy Webb air, with shimmering lead guitar and distant strings; the following “Jason” is embellished with baroque harpsichord and hews to a baroque mid-‘60s orch-pop vibe.
Later, the jaunty “On the Floor” (with harmony vocals from Phoebe Bridgers) features a complex interplay between two guitars, bass and keyboard, meshing into an almost Phillip Glass-like sonic mosaic at the end while Hadreas’ voice wings wordlessly over it all; the almost ballet-ic “Moonbend” sounds like its title, with a hushed falsetto and distant strings over a gently plucked Spanish guitar. Oddly, “Nothing at All,” arguably the most single-worthy song, with an indelible chorus and a dexterous melodic flourish, is track 10.
As one might expect from the title, “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” is elaborate, dramatic and demanding, and is not the kind of art that one comes to lightly — although, in yet another of the album’s counterintuitions, it works just as well as background listening as it does in intense focus. Expect this challenging and ever-changing artist’s most definitive statement to date to top many album-of-the-year lists.