Perfume Genius’ ‘Ugly Season’ is laminated, liminal triumph

Photo of Perfume Genius' "Ugly Season" album cover
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Grade: 4.0/5.0

The best artists contain multitudes, contain contradictions even. Performing under the moniker Perfume Genius since 2010, Mike Hadreas is one such figure. He’s part meticulous aesthete, part exemplary musician chasing the summit of a wildly critically successful career, part silly goose (on Twitter, that is).

Musically, the goose isn’t really a goose at all — Hadreas is a swan. He’s languid yet cinched and always impeccably graceful: instrumentally, vocally and physically. The emphasis here is truly on the physical. While working on his 2020 LP Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, Hadreas began working closely with choreographer Kate Wallich, culminating in the multigenre show The Sun Still Burns Here and planting the seeds for Hadreas’ latest album, Ugly Season.

When Hadreas takes the stage, reality begins to dissolve at the edges. In performance, he careens full-throttle toward a place of liminality that his music has long brushed up against, but nearly always backs away from just in time. This isn’t the case on Ugly Season, his most ambient and experimental work to date.

As far as one can attribute Hadreas’ work to an established genre, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is a pop record, though one occasionally speckled with inclinations toward something less sticky and more slippery. The track “Jason,” which molds one of Hadreas’ brief past flings into a character that continues to haunt him, feels especially haunting because of his oppositional ephemerality and import.

Jason carries over to Ugly Season, reappearing on the penultimate track “Hellbent,” which opens with a lengthy overture of discordant noise like helicopter blades married to a lawnmower — quintessential Set My Heart On Fire Immediately material. “Hellbent” is otherwise one of the few lyrical strongholds of the LP, most of which features Hadreas negotiating notions of perception and the body through a markedly more instrumental modality.

Approaching a physical and mental asymptote, Hadreas (or Hadreas’ narrator) is “Hellbent, phoneless/ Belligerent, Aquarius” but clings to the hope that Jason will be his salvation. “If I make it to Jason’s and put on a show/ Maybe he’ll soften and give me a loan,” he sings.

This temporal blurring — among records, indefinite memories, past and present narratives — is suggestive of transcendence, yet rarely is this transcendence moored in lyrics. (“Hellbent,” in this regard, is an outlier.) More often, it’s a feeling elicited by the luxuriant flutes and acquiescent falsetto sighs of “Herem,” or by the mounting rhythmic bass and nasal humming of “Eye in the Wall,” a track of mammoth proportions and ambition.

Corporeality, or more specifically the limitations and dualities of the body, has interestingly also long been a fascination of Hadreas. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately betrays this fixation through its lyrics: “Your Body Changes Everything,” “Just a Touch,” et cetera. Ugly Season appears more subtle about it, but perhaps this is just a facade enabled by ornate production that swallows directness.

In fact, artifice is another fixture of everyday life that Hadreas seeks to declaim on Ugly Season. The record is in many ways seeking to unshroud what is often repressed: to “Harvest the pit/ And spit out the rest” as he sings on “Pop Song.” Maybe abstraction, rather than convention, is the most honest way of examining the myths that place limitations on self-actualization and self-fulfillment.

Then again, maybe it isn’t. Wildly inventive and sumptuous, Ugly Season succeeds as a welcome entrant into Hadreas’ discography, engaging with his previous records yet functioning as wholly its own animal. It is strides ahead of much of the music being made on both the commercial and indie scene, which is, for the most part, inescapably banal. But is the record really any better than the sweltering ’80s synth-pop of Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, or the subdued, cutting lyricism of Put Your Back N 2 IT?

Contact Emma Murphree at [email protected].