Perfume Genius Ugly Season Review: A Bold Dissection of Dance As a Form

Perfume Genius Ugly Season Review: A Bold Dissection of Dance As a Form

Since releasing his debut album, Learning, in 2010, Perfume Genius has metamorphosized from a morose singer-songwriter into an avant-pop visionary. Mike Hadreas’s sixth studio album, Ugly Season, plumbs the boldest facets of his sound to capture the visceral and tender dimensions of dance, pushing the boundaries of his artistry.

Ugly Season was conceived as the soundtrack to 2019’s The Sun Still Burns Here, a dance project with choreographer Kate Wallich, and will soon receive an accompanying music film by visual artist Jacolby Satterwhite. But while it’s structurally somewhat of an outlier in his catalog, it also taps into Hadreas’s enduring lyrical themes of queerness, embodiment, and movement and is another dazzling display of his experimental ingenuity.

Ugly Season lives further from pop conventions than Hadreas’s last three albums, including 2014’s Too Bright, with songs averaging over five minutes in length and making frequent use of protracted pauses and unnerving, inscrutable sounds. On the opening track, “Just a Room,” Hadreas’s voice is tentative, muffled, and afraid; the track’s neoclassical darkwave orchestrations slowly recede, leaving just chimes and soft threadbare humming between swells of strings. The songs that follow largely share this measured approach, artfully building and releasing tension through an elegant psychedelic swirl of disparate influences.

While the album’s first three songs are subtly churning, eerie hymns, “Pop Song,” originally released in 2019, finds Hadreas swapping out the arid woodwinds for ringing synths and blithe choral arrangements. As suggested by its title, “Pop Song” is Ugly Season’s most accessible track, even if it doesn’t reach the immediacy of past Perfume Genius songs like “On the Floor” and “Queen.” Instead, with its harp strums, blissful sighs, and images of fruit pits and stretched bodies, it would have fit neatly between the most ethereal cuts on 2017’s No Shape.

Directly opposite in tone is the hallucinatory nine-minute odyssey “Eye in the Wall,” which equal parts tropical house and spacesynth. Its lyrics embody that same meeting of the lush (“I’m full of feeling/I’m full of nothing but love”) with the otherworldly (“Honey the tear in your eye”), abstracting the universal experiences that people share through dance: inhabiting a space with strangers, observing others, and, in turn, overcoming one’s inhibitions.

Throughout Ugly Season, every orchestral element, synth, and unidentifiable flourish is used to its most affecting potential. The clamorous “Hellbent,” which features some of Hadreas’s most impassioned vocals to date, centers around fluttering bass that echoes the sound of helicopter blades, in stark contrast to the skittering keys of “Scherzo.” Even within songs, these contrasts are effectively dramatic, as on the title track, in which a gospel organ offsets Hadreas’s dry gasps before he relieves the tension by reintroducing his feathery falsetto.

Lyrically and sonically, Ugly Season mirrors the movement of the body in dance, from primordial intensity to graceful plasticity. With what’s surely an intentional irony—The Sun Still Burns Here’s last scheduled performance was over two years ago—the album serves as a beautiful dissection of dance as action and concept. Beyond that, it’s the most experimental Perfume Genius effort to date, and a bold addition to an already impeccable discography.

Label: Matador Release Date: June 17, 2022 Buy: Amazon

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