A pop savant whose vision keeps getting more all-encompassing as he keeps making records, Mike Hadreas (a.k.a. Perfume Genius) has delivered his most ambitious music yet on his fifth LP. Back at the dawn of the 2010s, he drew notice with music that had the muted, willful intensity of bedroom recordings, but he’s been operating on a much grander scale for a while now, swerving between genres with Prince-like ease. This time, he brings on seasoned session veterans like drummers Jim Keltner and Matt Chamberlain and bassist Pino Palladino — the kind of guys who’ve been showing up on the biggest mainstream rock and pop records for decades. It’s a suggestion that Perfume Genius is taking his place in an echelon of music that must’ve seemed a planet away when he was crafting his earliest epistles from the art-pop hinterlands.
Hadreas’ sound mixes a loving sense of pop history and a blithe disregard for stylistic boundaries, causally traversing goth, glam, synth-pop, soul, and indie-rock, collapsing decades into his music. “Describe” beautifies Nineties guitar sludge, feeling at once like a subversion and a love letter. “On the Floor” plays gracefully with Eighties R&B, evoking Tina Turner via Erasure. He gets his Dusty Springfield on during “Jason,” his voice rising into a translucent falsetto. His songs can be as inviting as the warmly burnished folk-pop of “Without You” and as bracing as the metallic goth stomp “Your Body Changes Everything,” or tenderly longing like “One More Try” and “Leave,” in which longtime collaborator Blake Mills’ string arrangements stretch out across ballads that recall forlorn Fifties rock and roll crooning.
In all these settings, Hadreas meditates on desire as a blessing and burden, a tactile experience and an apparition just out of reach. “That was just a dream I had,” he sings on the album’s heartbreaking opener, “Whole Life,” his lament sinking into a golden river of glimmering guitar, lullaby piano, and luminous strings. The lyric brings to mind classic moments in pop — Joni Mitchell in “California,” singing about Sixties political revolution as “just a dream some of us had,” or Michael Stipe’s “That was just a dream” refrain from “Losing My Religion.” Here the dreamer’s dream is boiled down to the loneliest personal scale: Hadreas takes on the voice of an aging man singing about love and mortality, someone who’s wondering why he’s never found the satisfaction he’s spent half a life working to deserve. These are age-old ideas, but they don’t feel that way when he’s singing them. It’s par for the course for an artist who specializes in embodying pop archetypes, and making them new again.