Jun 17, 2022
For Mike Hadreas, also known as Perfume Genius, every new album acts as a sort of sonic transformation. Few artists have evolved more artistically while maintaining such a high level of consistency and intrigue. Starting out with lo-fi piano ballads in his 2010 debut, Learning, Hadreas brought on producer Blake Mills and embraced grander sounds and diverse styles on 2017’s No Shape and 2020’s Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. These changes reflected the evolving themes of Hadreas’ records. While his earlier work was confessional and told stories of heartbreak, abuse, and addiction, No Shape found bits of romance in its delicate balance between levity and poignancy.
With Ugly Season, Hadreas again works with Mills, but the project takes a sharp left turn. Originally conceived as a sister record to Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, it exists as the more improvised and experimental half. The record contains songs for The Sun Still Burns Here, a dance piece made with choreographer Kate Wallich and is accompanied by a short film from visual artist Jacolby Satterwhite entitled Pygmalion’s Ugly Season. This collaborative creative process is unlike anything Hadreas has attempted before and results in an album that sacrifices much of its structure in favor of the freedom to explore a wide array of musical ideas.
Fans of Hadreas’ work, especially the pop landscapes of his previous two albums, may be taken aback by Ugly Season’s departure into more purely orchestral arrangements, but the record will win many over with its evocative instrumentation and impassioned vocal performances. The project’s inspiration in dance allows it to embody movement as a major theme with tracks such as “Herem” and “Hellbent” boasting remarkable builds of tension and release. The former uses a combination of woodwinds, strings, and synths that transitions into a bellowing bass while the latter opens with a rumbling resembling the ominous sounds of a helicopter that makes way for frantic percussion and vocals that crescendo until the very end. However, some tracks like “Scherzo” and the closer “Cenote” occasionally get lost in their musical progressions and would greatly benefit from the context of their accompanying visuals.
“Pop Song,” which was originally released in 2019, centers the record as its most accessible track. Its bouncing synths provide the foundation for Hadreas’ delicate falsetto. “Harvest the pit/And spit out the rest” shows the artist seemingly moving on from his troubled past. It’s equally ethereal, warm, and uplifting. The other single, “Eye in the Wall,” is a nine-minute, psychedelic journey of escapism whose repetition of the phrase “give it up” signals a euphoric release of one’s reservations.
As the sixth album in Hadreas’ discography, Ugly Season deserves credit for taking the risks it does, trusting the audience to follow along with each step of its dance. The tracks are largely abstract with long periods of solely instrumental passages, but Hadreas’ artistic voice is evident throughout. If anything, the record demonstrates that his hunger for innovation and evolution still remain intact. (www.perfumegenius.org)
Author rating: 7.5/10
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