Reviews

On Ugly Season, Perfume Genius Is More Abstract Than Ever

In an Apple Music interview about his fifth album Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Perfume Genius—aka Mike Hadreas—shared his difficulty to feel like he “is actually in [his] body and actually being in the world.” The struggle of corporality—the beauty and the distress of living in our bodies and existing in the moment—is something Hadreas grappled with in his music since the very first Perfume Genius album. Later in the interview, he mentions how dance, choreography, and singing is a remedy—a means of feeling present physically and temporally. 

Through this lens, we should’ve seen a project like Ugly Season coming from Hadreas. With each release, the universe of Perfume Genius has grown more expansive and intricate, from the piano compositions of Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It to the layered arrangements of Set My Heart on Fire. Ugly Season is, perhaps, the capstone. 

The project arose as the soundtrack to the Seattle Theater Group-commissioned dance piece The Sun Still Burns Here. When Hadreas and co-choreographer Kate Wallich were no longer able to perform due to the pandemic, the project morphed into a short film created by visual artist Jacolby Satterwhite.

With elements across music, dance, live performance, and film, it seems as though the soul of Ugly Season isn’t in any one medium in particular, but the space between them. While this is officially Perfume Genius’ sixth album, by itself, it feels more like an accompaniment to a visual rather than a stand-alone work. 

Musically, Ugly Season sounds wide and orchestral, built around classical and ambient influences with a flair for the percussive. Hadreas’ lyricism and melody takes the backseat in favor of fragmented statements and choral murmurs. With collaborations from Hadreas’ partner Alan Wyffels and producer Blake Mills (Fiona Apple, John Legend, Pino Palladino), it takes an everything-up-for-grabs approach to instrumentation. “Scherzo” is a piano instrumental built around the disharmonious tritone (historically referred to as The Devil’s Chord). “Herem” sounds like a dirge until it expands into an almost-clubby outro, composed of deep bass and dusty textures. “Pop Song” features a main line with a linear synth that would sound at home on AG Cook’s 7G—until it dissolves into percussion, choral vocals, and harp. The planetary “Eye in the Wall” seems to phases in and out of rhythm—it’s dance music without gravity. 

Ugly Season is Hadreas untethered, shimmering and shifting in and out of corporality like the album’s cover. If music, dance, and art is Perfume Genius’ way to heal from his inability to feel present, then this is his greatest expression of freedom from that burden. Ironically, it also contains his most direct ode to the messiness of the body. “Ugly Season” is gritty and visceral, a devotion to the primal. “Bitch, it’s ugly season/And I love it.” Hadreas have never sounded so thrilled to be “Knee deep and filthy.” 

In all honesty, I’m not really sure what to make of Ugly Season. It’s bold and boundless, but it also feels too abstract. Mike Hadreas’ skills as a composer, arranger, and multi-hyphenate creative is more present than ever, at the loss of rock or chamber pop songs that condense these feelings he grapples with. The thrill of Perfume Genius’ work—especially his previous two albums—is in its ability to bring that level of intentionality and orchestration into songs that have shape and physicality. The explosion of “Slip Away” or the way “Describe” relaxes into ambience, these are still the moments that feel most rewarding to me. “Photograph” emerges as the song with most replay value here, using the scope of Ugly Season’s sound to explicate a painful grieving. The craft of Ugly Season is undeniably ornate and expressive, but as a body of work, it lacks the body.

Ugly Season is out now.

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