It’s possible that Michael Alden Hadreas, better known asPerfume Genius, may well be one of the most underrated voices in baroque and art-pop. It’s also possible that this is exactly the way he intended it to be. Since first breaking onto the scene in 2010 with soft, confessional piano ballads, Hadreas may have expanded his sonic scope but has maintained a sense of intimacy in his work. There’s a quiet violence to him; never needing to be loud in order to be heard. Though still, just how groundbreaking Hadreas was may get a bit lost sometimes. He arrived unapologetically queer at a time when the industry had barely began to pivot toward awareness. Songs like his breakout single Queen and Grid explored the abject qualities of queer existence and the irrationality of concepts such as gay panic with an assured and gentile honesty. In many ways, his outward visage transgressed the subject matter. For all accounts beautiful in both sight and sound, from Too Bright onwards Hadreas allowed for abjection to become palatable by way of a neo-dandy presentation. On the cover of Too Bright, he appears pristine and gilded. On his debut Learning, his face is distorted by a molten, fungal-like patch. The juxtaposition of aesthetic beauty and abjection has always been central to the Perfume Genius mythology, and this all culminates and collapses on his latest album, Ugly Season. Here, his image is distorted like never before; the human form twisted in layers of grotesque yet gorgeous decay and perhaps for the first time, the music follows suit.
There’s always been a slight experimental edge to his sound, but mostly Hadreas’s baroque has functioned within neatly structured, beautiful melodies and overall clarity. Ugly Season shifts that approach almost all the way to the left; it’s melodically abstract, syncopated, and challenging in a way that none of its predecessors are. On the opening track Just A Room, there’s no lyrics in sight. Rather, Ugly Season opens with a Glass-esque composition of tapped piano keys and hushed yet guttural moans. There is no distinct structure, no clear beginning, middle, or end. On Herem, he sings along a song structure that’s in constant flux as it dips in and out of hallucinatory brilliance, stretching his consonants in Björk-esque fashion so that the lyrics and melody become one and the same. Like an extended fever dream stream of consciousness, Herem flows languidly across dunes and desolate sand banks until it buries itself beneath pulsating bass and glowing orbs of drone notes. Pop Song is somewhat emblematic of the album’s approach in general. It takes familiar Hadreas pop tropes and totally subverts them. Clips of poetic confessional lyrics, the throb of disco synths, snatches of melody are all fragmented and pasted together into a mutant Perfume Genius song that’s both familiar but terrifyingly uncanny. Likewise, Eye In The Wall slowly shifts from dub to what sounds like disco pulled through an infinite vacuum; expansive, confrontational, and transportive.
One of Ugly Season’s most distinguishable factors is how embodied the music feels. It’s no surprise that the songs here are actually the result of Hadreas’s explorations into modern dance. There’s a focus on the body that’s distinguished from his previous work, again coming back to his oscillation between abjection and beauty. Where previously on songs like Hood he explores the queer body through fragile imagery and vulnerable melodies (describing the abject rather than becoming it), on Ugly Season the music itself becomes the body in question. The carnal mysticism of Teeth is less a poetic recounting of sex than it is a series of visceral images and words that suggest the feeling of the body engaged in the act itself. Prompts like “a skull sat on a plate,” are all that’s offered, yet intertwined amongst sensually erratic chimes and ecstatic moans, the intention of the image is clear. The fractured trip-hop and Sam Gendel’s brilliantly demented sax on Photograph speaks of obsession and desire by similar means. Take Put Your Back N 2 It’s “I will take the dark part of your heart into my heart” compared to Ugly Season’s “No fantasy. You Were meant for me.” It’s a Perfume Genius less wrapped up in the romance of myth-making and more present in the lived experience.
In many ways, Ugly Season was always an inevitable evolution for Perfume Genius. The shift from bright eyed queer youth underscored by beauty and hedonism, toward the reality of queer adulthood, less outwardly beautiful and more inline with the chaos of the lived experience, is a natural progression for an artist who’s always managed to speak of queerness by way of honesty. It’s a revolutionary album and resounding triumph for Hadreas that affirms what has always been true of him; he is without question, too bright and brilliant.
Watch the short film Pygmalion’s Ugly Season by Jacolby Satterwhite featuring music from Ugly Season below.