Perfume Genius Finds Strange Beauty in 'Ugly Season'
Published Jun 16, 2022Rolling over the horizon like a mass of purple clouds, a swarm of pealing organ and bleating drones announce a dramatic shift in weather — it's Ugly Season. Mike Hadrea's latest record as Perfume Genius was written to accompany The Sun Still Burns Here, his immersive dance collaboration with choreographer and friend Kate Wallich, and its music is a slow-building storm of pure, carefully-wrought action. It urges one to move more explicitly than his previous work, dictating form and motion in ways his scintillating art pop has only hinted at.
The title of both the record and the dance performance speak to an invocation of mother nature in the body and the body in the greater world; blood surges toward a predetermined end as water through a river, hair whips and disrupts like wind against branches. "Just a Room" announces itself with a tempest of resounding tones, drone and manipulated human voice smearing across that still-burning sun before Hadreas enters at his lowest register. Instead of a torrential storm, the song suddenly softens to a patter as crystalline piano and gentle mewls slow the momentum before it even begins.
This is the difficult-to-map tidal pattern of Ugly Season, which can't — and shouldn't — be divorced from its function as dance piece accompaniment. Its constantly mutating suites are designed to mold against the body as it moves, and it has little need for catharsis in the traditional sense. These songs shift from the hips to the tips of the fingers, from towering waves to dew drops; the drama is condensed and siphoned but never abandoned.
That's not to say that Ugly Season is particularly difficult. If anything, it's some of the most dynamic music of Hadreas' career as he, producer Blake Mills and Hadreas' longtime partner and pianist Alan Wyffels blend a dozen new styles into the neon slurry of Perfume Genius. It requires slightly more patient listening — lacking the immediacy of songs like "Queen," "Slip Away" or even "Describe" — but its slithering, dense songs will be semi-familiar territory for fans of the darker, more visceral corners of Hadreas' catalogue.
Because Hadreas is a master of the left-of-centre pop form, he can't help but release at least one shot of light from Ugly Season's slippery depths. Living up to its name as the record's most welcoming piece of music, the effervescent clatter of "Pop Song" — first released back in 2019 — is pure levitation, all hips and heartbeats. It's both the record's greatest outlier and its undeniable anchor, every other song branching from its pulse like veins. The chilly piano-only "Scherzo" (courtesy of Wyffels) is a tingling scalp of a song, while the humid dub of the title track — reaching for the sun in its bouncing rhythm, but dragged somewhere darker by Hadreas' subterranean vocals — illuminates Hadreas in an entirely new form. The malleability of his voice has never been better showcased, allowing him to stretch his alien pipes into a smorgasbord of new styles and forms.
Following the epic dance exorcism of "Eye in the Wall," Ugly Season closes on the throbbing horror pop of "Hellbent"— a near-anthem built on grinding guitar and jazz-punk drums — and the aqueous synths and stumbling piano of "Cenote." It's the height of the storm and its settled aftermath, the body's final thrash and its sweat-drenched recovery. Ugly Season may lack the emotional resonance of Hadreas' best work as Perfume Genius, but it achieves a wildness that he's never quite accessed before, an alchemy between his bone-raw earlier records and the epic proportions of his later work. It's not the most essential Perfume Genius album, but it feels like an important one — the wind-whipping, pulse-quickening sprint to some place even bigger and more daring. (Matador)