Successfully pulling off avant-garde is a tricky balancing act. Doing it right often means taking the project seriously enough to say something worthwhile, but at the same not take it so seriously that it becomes a self-serious parody of itself.
Mike Hadreas, better known as Perfume Genius, has proven to be an expert in walking that fine line. He has crafted a sound that is all his own, and although his experimental edge has always been there, it is never weird for its own sake.
If it can be said to be weird, it is because its ideas — queerness, the interplay of sexual and sensual desire, and the inherent strangeness of inhabiting a frail body made of meat — tend to provoke discomfort and get relegated into that general category of weirdness.
Hadreas’ sixth studio album, Ugly Season, (★★★☆☆) take things to a new level with a singularly challenging sound. The record is not a complete departure, but if Set My Heart On Fire Immediately succeeded by marrying a resonant and infectious pop sensibility with his flair for artful experimentation, Ugly Season strips away any pretenses to mass appeal and dares a listener to follow along.
That’s not to say that there is no discernible structure here — Hadreas eases into the more difficult content, even warning us in voiceover on the album opener, “no pattern, no bloom/where I’m taking you.”
Ugly Season eventually builds to maximalism, but takes its time getting there. But even the more outwardly subtle approach he takes on the early part of the album is still complex and layered, as can be seen in the dreamy, slowly-unfolding “Teeth” and the minimal-yet-frantic piano-forward track “Scherzo.”
The last friendly moment before things begin to sound unmoored and almost improvisational comes in the form of “Pop Song,” whose beat and conventional structure deliver what the label promises but whose title seems to almost mock its relative friendliness.
Things progress in a similar fashion, building toward “Hellbent,” a captivatingly grim and chaotic track with humming synths and crashing, buzzing interventions that together sound like an engine about to fail. The all-instrumental closer “Cenote” ends Ugly Season on an unexpectedly tranquil note, feeling almost like a comedown.
Accompanying the artful instrumentals are abstract lyrics that contend with very Perfume Genius themes of physicality and surrender to forces beyond his control, as he gently pleads on “Teeth,” “Lay your palm upon my heart, unmake my name.”
Hadreas has always been comfortable with the visceral, and his embrace of it comes to a head on the title track, which features him growling in the midst of the song’s hypnotic rhythms, “Thick as vaseline I turn from love/I turn from solace/Bitch, it’s ugly season, and I love it.”
When confronted with the album’s less accessible moments, it is useful to keep in mind that its songs began their life written for The Sun Still Burns Here, a collaborative dance project between Hadreas and choreographer Kate Wallich. Though it has since been finessed and expanded, it still feels very much like music made to exist alongside something else rather than stand completely on its own.
There are indicators of how the songs become more vivid when paired with accompanying visuals in the 30-minute short film released alongside the album, Pygmalion’s Ugly Season, a vision of utopia that features trippy transitions and surreal visuals. Still, in some of the album’s apparently aimless moments, it is hard to shake the feeling that something important might have gotten lost when the music was taken out of its original context.
Ugly Season rewards patience above all. Most of the time, a listener has to be paying close attention to see the imagination, precision, and masterful artistry behind it. It is not for everyone, nor is it trying to be, but in its finest moments, it feels daring and indulgent in the best way, an example of what Hadreas’ imagination is capable of when allowed to run wild.
Ugly Season and Pygmalion’s Ugly Season are available everywhere now.
Perfume Genius will be playing dates in Canada and Europe starting in July. Visit www.perfumegenius.org.
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