The brilliance of Perfume Genius’ last studio album, 2020’s ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’, was the fact that such an accessible and infectious pop record – which would significantly increase Mike Hadreas’ mainstream status – conveyed a parallel fascination with experimental art.
That record’s standout single ‘On The Floor’, for instance, would not shimmer and shuffle with the same elegance were it not Hadreas’ exploration of physical movement in the years beforehand. This came through The Sun Still Burns Here, a 2019 modern dance performance that Hadreas created, starred in and soundtracked in collaboration with the choreographer Kate Wallich.
‘Ugly Season’, then, which is essentially the soundtrack for that show, now expanded in the studio with long-term partner Alan Wyffels and producer Blake Mills, is not so much a companion piece to ‘Set My Heart…’ as it is an exercise in stripping back the layers of pop. Boldly experimental, it comes alongside a short film by the similarly ambitious Jacolby Satterwhite, whose practise combines live video, 3-D animation drawing and print-making.
This experimentalism naturally comes at the expense of accessibility, and there are points, such as the long abstract piano piece ‘Scherzo’, that might try a casual listener’s patience. The album is largely instrumental; when Hadreas’ vocals are employed it’s in an expressionistic manner with lyrics distorted and difficult to make out – a long way from direct confessionals that are so captivating on his other LPs.
It’s a bold statement from an artist who could so easily have leaned into his growing status as a mainstream pop star instead. ‘Ugly Season’ finds Hadreas unafraid of alienation; the record is to be taken on its own terms, and when a listener approaches it with an open mind, they’ll be richly rewarded. The album contains multitudes, from the title track’s fascinating excursion into dub reggae and the nine-minute psychedelic ambient epic ‘Eye In The Wall’. The there’s the thrilling combination of industrial noise and jazz chaos on ‘Hellbent’ – the album’s best moment of all.
‘Ugly Season’ might be indulgent, but Hadreas is still able to weave in the tender and immediate songwriting that made ‘Set My Heart On Fire’ so engaging (just as he wove his experimental streak into that record). There is, after all, a track called ‘Pop Song’, on which a beautiful, highly emotive vocal melody rises shimmering over a skittering instrumental; powerful, nuanced and forward-thinking.
Release date: June 17
Record label: Matador