Given its origins as a score for a contemporary dance piece, it’s easy to label Ugly Season as not a ‘normal’ Perfume Genius album; to sub-consciously categorise it as something of a side-piece or curiosity. If it had remained solely as Mike Hadreas’ soundtrack to choreographer Kate Wallich’s work The Sun Still Burns Here then that might be true. However, after the pandemic hit and performances of the dance piece were curtailed, the music took on a new life in the studio where Hadreas worked with his usual collaborators Alan Wyffels and Blake Mills with the same level of care and attention as previous Perfume Genius album.
In listening to Ugly Season, it’s natural to try to create a continuity with previous Perfume Genius albums, but the closest antecedents are what are generally considered the outliers. There’s a ghostliness that links back to No Shape’s “Choir” and a warped fragility that recalls Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’s “Leave” and “Moonbend”, but these are only brief connections that are quickly swallowed by the all-encompassing nature of the music here.
The tone is set immediately with the opening “Just A Room”, where any semblance of ‘pop’ is completely overshadowed by domineering harmonium, twinkling celeste and Hadreas’ wailing through the background. While the instruments change, this imposing and grandiose approach is maintained throughout the work, with Hadreas almost always in falsetto to contrast the string-laden and regally droning soundscapes.
There are songs that stand out from this overarching concept – one of them is conspicuously titled “Pop Song”, which, true to its name, is a light and catchy song. There’s also “Photograph”, a shuffling lament that’s bolstered by purring electric guitar, demented sax and a luminous choral arrangement, all of which brings unsettling romance to Hadreas’ ode to a deceased loved one. It stands up as one of the most starkly affecting Perfume Genius songs to date.
But, for each of these more accessible moments, there are many more where the idea of a catchy melody is anathema – Ugly Season overall is a work to indulge in, rather than get hooked by. On “Herem”, sax and flute are used not so much to add beauty but to add gravity to the slow-moving tide; if you’re willing to dive in then you’ll soon be stuck in its unyielding current. “Hellbent” is the most guitar-centric track, but its not a rocker – the axe wails and cavorts alongside choppy synth, chaotic drums and Hadreas’ growing desperation (which happens to reference the titular Jason from the Set My Heart… highlight).
In these more overtly opulent moments, it’s impossible to forget that these songs started as accompaniment to modern dance, which might be an instant turn-off for some. However, stick with it and accept Ugly Season as a whole piece and it becomes clear that the more classical approach to songwriting means there is always a lush arrangement or thicket of instrumentation arising or receding. While not grabbing it, Ugly Season continually tugs at your attention and invites it to indulge in this more palatial sound.
One way in which Ugly Season does clearly link back to previous Perfume Genius albums is the lyricism, where Hadreas continues to display his fascination with human physicality and appearance. “Pop Song” finds him meditating on stretched bodies and severed flesh, but the album’s most airy and immediate arrangement makes it sound like a more divine prospect than it seems on paper. The title track finds him luxuriating in his hideousness, throatily intoning “bitch it’s ugly season and I love it” and teasing “notice the tongue split black pit” all while gurpa, clarinet, synth and more dance around him in malevolent glee. This physical obsession comes to a head in the epic “Eye In The Wall”, a percussion-led track where the rhythms and Hadreas’ voice snake around each other as he sings of “your body onscreen / I’m full of feeling.”
Only time will tell how Ugly Season fits into the Perfume Genius canon. Whether or not it gets accepted as the true follow-up to Set My Heart… may well come down to whether Hadreas and co try to insert these songs into live shows, whenever they go on the road again. Moreover, this is undoubtedly going to be a divisive one for long-term fans, with some holding it up as just as vital as anything else, while others will simply overlook it or just take a couple of highlights to add to their ‘Best of PG’ playlists. Whichever the case, whether you devour it or dismiss it, there’s no denying that it expands the mythos and majesty of Perfume Genius.