Wednesday, June 22, 2022

‘Ugly Season’ from Perfume Genius steers us through a barren landscape of inner demons and towards the great unknown

Ugliness is impossibly beautiful… Or so that’s what this album, the sixth release from Mike Hadreas (aka. Perfume Genius), seems to want to drive the listener towards – and it’s a wild ride, full of desolation, intimacy and queer catharsis. 

With ten songs and a running time of fifty-two minutes,‘Ugly Season’is given the necessary space to transform and experiment, pulling off an exciting melange of sound and narrative. 

From the orchestral opening track, ‘Just a Room’ which tinkles and stuns with baroque flair, to the quasi-dream state reggae of the album’s titular track,‘Ugly Season’; the nightmarish fury of ‘Hellbent’; and finally, one last moment of respite, the majestically poignant piano piece, ‘Cenote’.

Arguably the most rewarding aspect of the record comes from its unpredictability. It is impossible to listen all the way through without feeling a sense of renewal. Listen to it repeatedly and the steadily-built layers of meaning will be unravelled. Hadreas’ voice dips in and out of comprehension, appearing on tracks like the frenetic ‘Eye in the Wall’ as a barely-there whisper, or not at all on the purely instrumental ‘Scherzo’. This is a far cry from the sometimes painfully transparent and confessional dialogue that Hadreas employed on previous works. Yet, at times, there is absolute clarity in ‘Ugly Season’; the line, “What images return to me?” constantly repeated on the third track, ‘Teeth’, recalls the haunting sentiment of Sibylle Baier’s‘I Lost Something in the Hills’and seems to encapsulate recurring themes on the album. Themes explored are the deceptive nature of memory, identity and references to a wider visual art – a concept which is expanded upon in video collaboration with the multi-media artist, Jacolby Satterwhite, Pygmalion's Ugly Season.

Hadreas’ engagement with a diverse array of influences and art forms is evident in the visceral, corporeal quality of this largely instrumental project. Everything from every trickling piano note, every simmering distortion appears poised to strike and make the listener move. The project first emerged as the score for a contemporary dance performance, The Sun Still Burns Here, created by choreographer Kate Wallich. So, it is not surprising that the album, particularly the first half, seems geared towards a larger, more visual picture. Even the most obviously upbeat, the aptly titled ‘Pop Song’, punctuated by ethereal harp and disconcerting synth, appeals to a visual sensation with Hadreas’ lyrical imperative to Sever the flesh / Harvest the pain”. Evidently, the body is central to ‘Ugly Season’, however ugly it may be.


What is surprising, however, is the turn taken in the second half of the record. The stakes are raised and the urgency is apparent on ‘Eye in the Wall’. The sensuousness of Hadreas’ breathy vocals, spurred on by the rising synth, make this track tick. Again, the body is evoked, though this time, the “Eye in the wall” creates a seedy vision of desire which commands the abstract object of the eye to “Give it up / Bend like a reed / Tell me you need me”. The galloping drums and vulture-like whistles give the song an edgy, Western feel, which lead smoothly into the next track, ‘Photograph’. Once more, the uneasy lover is calling out to the object of their desire. Irresistibly sleazy and hypnotic,‘Photograph’ introduces the salacious cacophony of sound to be found on the album’s most ambitious track, ‘Hellbent’


Suitably furious, the soundtrack to eternal damnation, ‘Hellbent’ puts the listener in the passenger seat of a car driving down to the very edge of the world. The last three minutes prove that chaos reigns. Heavy electric guitar riffs and steady drums which build and build to a frenetic, dominating catharsis. Above it all, Hadreas’ voice repeats over and over the haunting lines, “It’s happened before / It’s still happening", only, all is not doomed to the chaos of Hadreas’ making. The final track, ‘Cenote’ reprises the orchestral strings of the opening song and finally brings us to some sense of rest; to some sense of catharsis.

‘Ugly Season’ is Hadreas’ most experimental and ambitious work to date. It defies single, half-hearted listening. It brims with feeling and dares to move. It requires both, body and mind but, most of all, heart. 

Briá Purdy 

Image: ‘Ugly Season’ Official Album Cover


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