ALBUM REVIEW: Perfume Genius, Ugly Season
2022 is the year of the B-Album for so many artists. First it was The Weeknd and FKA twigs in the first few weeks of January with projects that shelved wider appeal in favor of healing and flow, then it was Earl Sweatshirt with his post-pandemic project Sick, and then Mitski came through with the purposeful impersonal Laurel Hell. Those with an undiscerning ear looked at the streams and Twitter to stamp these records as “mid” as is a custom in the modern dystopia we call popular media. I tend to see each of these efforts as a turn away from expectations rather than a “fuck you” to the fans. For years, all these artists either bared their souls or amped up the pop appeal in order to satisfy some of the most critical and attentive listeners in music history. Everyone's an art critic with Create Mode and Letterboxd these days, so backlash is often swift and premature as fuck.
As a self-proclaimed appraiser of modern art (usually in the form of music), I can respect and appreciate various outings on different levels. In the case of Michael Hadreas aka Perfume Genius, I see the newest effort Ugly Season as inferior yet more experimental than his last and maybe best album Set My Heart On Fire Immediately. Pound for pound, the songwriting is more avant-garde, the lyrics are less revealing and the music often lacks form. It’s difficult to parse through and if you are a first time listener, this is the last place you should start with his catalog (I suggest either No Shape or Too Bright). Ironically so, it is the abrasiveness and mucky exterior of Ugly Season that also makes it great.
From the opening note of “Just a Room”, this is a harrowing record. It’s almost like Mike is saying “turn back now if you must” with the line “No pattern, no bloom / Where I’m taking you / Just a room”. With its spare electric piano hits, ominous hums and rising string sections, the space begins to take shape before falling apart into the shadows. “Herem” is a follow-up that immediately gives me shades of Lingua Ignota and Colin Stetson’s Hereditary OST, it’s like a funeral dirge with sorrowful flutes and saxophones. It’s cultish in how uplifting and bright it shines, like a crack into Hell that presents itself as a signal toward hidden treasure. This record generally speaking is a hypnotic siren song, filled with longer tracks that tick back and forth like a metronome while simultaneously submerging the listener in sonic smoke. It’s this ornately arranged horror that manifests itself on tracks like “Teeth”, “Scherzo” and the instrumental closer “Cenote”.
For all its purposeful messiness, I am both baffled and impressed by the inclusion of “Pop Song” and “Eye in the Wall”. These songs are from 2019, as a part of a collaboration with dancers Kate Wallich + the YC. I enjoyed them when they came out and expected them to be on Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, but they were missing from that tracklist. Now it’s 3 years after the fact and here they are, as shining synthy gems wedged into this otherwise pitch black tracklisting. Despite their awkwardness shoulder to shoulder with these other songs, they are still two of the best songs here. They hold up pretty well despite the time we’ve had to sit with them. “Eye in the Wall” is one of his most ambitious and danceable songs, a 7+ minute epic that feels like cruising noir. It’s deeply percussive and has these angular guitar hits that perfectly compliment the sexiness of his vocals.
Anytime I have reservations about an album like this, my favorite thing to do is point to its best song and simply say, I wish there was more of it. “Hellbent” is the most daring, harshest and most hard hitting song Perfume Genius has ever released and that’s just a fact. Yes, “Slip Away” and “Queen” had more overt drops, but nothing deserves to explode quite like this one. On a dark sequel to 2020’s “Jason”, Hadreas digs up every last bit of intrigue and warped guitar sound in order to hit the listener right in the chest. “Hellbent, phoneless / Belligerent, Aquarius” he states on the chorus as everything around him seems to fall apart. Overall, Ugly Season is a worthwhile diversion from the typical Perfume Genius aesthetic to tap into darker and less forward facing feelings. By no measure would I say this is his best, but it’s an honest and unfucked-with expression of himself that I admire.