As critical fans of music, we tend to approach reviews of established artists with an unjust amount of expectation. How does their new material stack up to their most beloved projects? When can we let a piece of art stand on two legs without the artist offering an explanation? These are the questions that arise when we view and dissect music that artists have laid their hearts on the line to create. In a slightly awkward exchange between Win Butler of the Arcade Fire and guru producer Rick Rubin on Rubin’s podcast Broken Record, a slightly agitated Butler asked Rubin what the bearded musical sage would like a new Arcade Fire record to sound like if he had his druthers. Game to give his honest opinion, Rubin refused to shrink from Butler’s prompt and give him the “just do your Arcade Fire thing, Win” response, and instead offered the cold, hard truth. “I care less about the trappings of it and more about [it] being really good at whatever it is that it is. I care less about what it is and more about how good of a version of whatever the thing that you decided to be is,” Rubin said in a very unsubtle, matter-of-fact way. And there it is. Intention and execution: That’s all that needs to be considered.
After two marquee-lighting records that could be viewed as the “arrival” moments for Perfume Genius, Mike Hadreas and his long-time collaborator and partner Alan Wyffels were ready to take the project back into the black-box theater to stretch the limits of the form on their new record, Ugly Season. The last Perfume Genius record, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, was indie rock’s cinematic event of 2020. The album included production and guitar from bonafide wizard Blake Mills, as well as appearances from Pino Palladino on bass and the legendary Jim Keltner on drums. It was clear that Hadreas and Wyffels enlisted an ensemble of studio killers to bring their texturally rich vision of romantic longing to Terrence Malick-level epic proportions. The album’s single “On The Floor” even featured the glassy harmonies of Phoebe Bridgers. No expense was spared when the goal was in view.
In the two years since, the plan had been to retreat away from the romantic grandeur of that album with a collaboration between Hadreas and well-known choreographer Kate Wallich. Commissioned by the Seattle Theatre Group and Mass MoCA, the dance performance titled The Sun Still Burns Here would star Hadreas—along with Wallich’s company of dancers, The YC—and contain 10 songs that he, Wyffels and Mills had written to accompany it. The show went on, with performances booked in various cities across the country in 2019, before the pandemic forced them to ease back. Now, the only representation of those performances is tucked away in a YouTube trailer. But the music the three created didn’t die there. It will live on in two different mediums: a short film by acclaimed animator Jacolby Sattlewhite and as this standalone album (the writer waves to a presentation board with the album art prominently displayed) Ugly Season. So how does the music fare without the movements it was intended to soundtrack? Furthermore, is it fair to critique the music on this album without experiencing the artist’s full intention?
Luckily for us, the music that Perfume Genius has created along with Mills on Ugly Season is as methodically paced and layered as you would hope for with a project of this scope. The ebbs and flows of a classical piece or the symphonic accompaniment to a ballet have always remained a template for pop music at its most sweeping and amorous. With Ugly Season, Hadreas and co. slowly draw you in with a sense of sonic mastery that rewards patience and undivided attention. Things start off slow here as the album percolates with the brooding strings and accordion of opener “Just a Room.” In a bit of prophetic narration, Hadreas explains what we are in for in the album’s first movement: “No pattern / No bloom / Where I’m taking you / Flat and static / Just a room, “ he declares, knowing full well that things will be much different in the daring and shapeshifting album that is about to unfold. The album remains in lurking in the bushes mode as it patiently builds at a simmer. Hadreas abandons the hushed whisper of the opening track to showcase his piercing falsetto on the two following tracks, “Herem” and “Teeth”—the latter pleads to various characters in Greek mythology to help Hadreas’ narrator retreat from reality into the tranquil oblivion of a dream world without obligation. “Floros, Frixos, find me,” Hadreas coos over glacial strings and plucked harp, “Lay your palm upon my heart, unmake my name.”
Things pick up on the previously released “Pop Song, ” which introduces synths and live kitchen-sink percussion from Mills, delivering on the song’s name with the first BPM on the album to mimic an elevated heartbeat. Hadreas’ falsetto is something to behold here. With the way Mills has approached Hadreas’ voice from a recording standpoint on all of their past collaborations, starting with 2017’s No Shape, its close and vulnerable place in the mix on Ugly Season evokes the paralyzing and transfixing vocals of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons. In fact, the fluid nature of the record recalls the same mysterious momentum of that legendary band’s last offering, 2008’s Third. After the brief, Wyffels-penned piano interlude “Scherzo,” the album gets more bizarre and adventurous as we move into its second movement.
On the album’s title track, Hadreas, Wyffels and Mills create the closest thing you will ever hear to legendary dub producer Lee “Scratch” Perry hosting Berlin industrial artists Einstürzende Neubauten at his Black Ark studio. Wet reverb drenches pieces of metal that Mills smashes in the distance like they owe him weed money, with Hadreas playing reggae upbeats on the organ. He mumbles in a low register in between the song’s candy-coated choruses, kicking away any extraneous bullshit in the way of him reveling in his need for celebration. “I’m hideous raving / Feeling my fantasy,” he says without a care in the world, “Bitch, it’s ugly season / And I love it.”
The album’s standout moment comes next with “Eye in the Wall,” a dizzying, near-nine-minute labyrinth that finds Hadreas at his most lustful. Over a drum pattern by Matt Chamberlain that would pass an audition process with Fela Kuti & Africa ‘70 drummer Tony Allen, Hadreas looks for scraps of affection. He asks the object of his desire to “spit on a glove” and show it to him as a small consolation. Maybe it’s all he deserves for his longing, as Hadreas is only a vessel that is only full of “feeling” and “nothing but love.” The song spins out with its drums skittering as it transitions to the salsa-flavored “Photograph” with Mills’ tasteful guitar, synth and percussion playing proving that he is the closest thing we have to an amalgamation of Jim O’Rourke and Ry Cooder.
On “Hellbent,” Hadreas creates a bed of synth drones that sound like helicopter blades that are too close for comfort. In fact, the feeling the song evokes is like if Henry Hill had taken PCP and was being chased by a fleet of choppers that could blot out the Los Angeles sun in that infamous sequence in Goodfellas. Much like Hill in that moment, Hadreas depicts someone flying down the highway in a crazed state, with the world delivering “L” after “L.” He’s looking for cosmic reasoning for why his night is going so horribly and hoping that by the time he makes it to Jason’s house to smooth things over, things will be right in the universe again. “Hellbent phoneless belligerent Aquarius / It happened again / It’s still happening,” he says, as if we’re all supposed to sympathize. Chamberlain once again provides frenetic and muscular blasts behind the kit as Mills unleashes fuzzed-out leads that bend into madness in the song’s last moments. Without knowing if this drive fixed his night or ended up in a five-car pileup, the album concludes with another tranquil piano piece, “Cenote.”
With the surgical precision that went into stitching Ugly Season together, you could easily forget what the initial intentions were for the project. On its own, it’s one of the most challenging and rewarding releases Perfume Genius has ever attempted. Sure, the dance performance or the short film may be made better with the music behind them. But there’s no question that this album could break bricks without visual accompaniment. The compositional risks and oblique poetry from Hadreas never waver throughout the album’s methodical pacing, with his voice bringing urgency to every subtle change as the songs progress. Even though he may not technically be a full-time member, Mills’ role as producer and multi-instrumentalist has yielded fantastic results in his ongoing involvement with Hadreas and Wyffels, and his attentive mix once again brings out the delicate dynamics the music deserves. Ugly Season continues a hell of a winning streak for Perfume Genius, a group that has ascended beyond expectation.
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.