The collision between acoustic instrumentation and crackerjack production makes for a lush and widescreen experience. Mills’ harmonium on “Herem” bubbles with dread from the song’s swirling brew before programmed drums carry the arrangement to a cathartic finish; clarinet swells offer an immense moment of bliss on “Teeth”; Hadreas’ sighing vocals on “Pop Song” turn to playful coos when chimes and percussion bang into the mix. Compared to previous albums, such rousing peaks are less immediate, on tracks that stretch past the seven-minute mark and leave choruses in the dust. Spend time with this music, though, and its glimmers of hooky beauty leave a profound impression, like watching a peacock preen and flash its magnificent plumage for a moment at a time.
At points, Ugly Season Reminds me of Prince’s 1986 album Parade, another score that outgrew its source material, balancing forward-thinking highs with a casual, elusive, disjunctive structure. In place of Prince’s buoyant eroticism, Perfume Genius’ stylistic smorgasbord treats sex like a languid affair, one that befits the record’s other preoccupation: sadness. Formally, the album seems to crumble in its middle. “Scherzo,” an unadorned piano composition by Wyffels, serves as a melancholic comedown after the first suite of songs. This strange bit of sequencing sutures the wound in Ugly Season’s middle, as though Hadreas wants you to see the stitches.
Less narrative than ever, his lyrics shine with a symbolic vocabulary rooted in gay culture. He often compares bodies to plants and fruits: “Stretched out like a reed,” he sings on “Herem,” and on “Pop Song,” he commands us to “harvest the pit/And spit out the rest.” He views sex as a magic ritual on a couple of tracks, and on “Teeth” he harkens back to the same 19th-century context in which a homosexual identity began coalescing in the West. “A fading garland,” he describes: “A skull set on a plate.” For the first time, Perfume Genius sings in still-lifes, and formally, the album reflects this same focus—wordless closer “Cenote” echoes the first track’s opening notes on a simpler setup of solo piano, like a gallery displaying the study of a work its alongside finished canvas.
Ugly Season does have a single narrative gem, among the greatest Hadreas has cut. “Hellbent” reprises the character of Jason, the casual lover of a confused narrator, from the eponymous highlight of Perfume Genius’ last album. “They took my phone,” the speaker intones, perhaps because he just escaped from rehab. Alone on the roadside, bleeding from his arm (because of a boozy fall, we imagine), he clings desperately to the heartbreaking belief that he can charm his hookup into offering him help. “First car to stop/Just took one look and drove,” he spits, and tells us several minutes later, “If I make it to Jason’s and put on a show/Maybe he’ll soften and give me a loan.”
Here, Perfume Genius channels the empathy that drew us to his tunes in the first place, chronicling his character’s chaos by balancing a first-person sneer with the lucidity of distance and maturity. Hadreas, who jump-started his music career after he became sober in his late twenties, has already mastered this sort of songwriting. Yet the effect feels newly urgent on the atmospheric Ugly Season, like a buried, hurtful memory that starts pulsing again through the haze of time. Pop music tends to offer the lozenge of amnesia to just about everyone, allowing even homophobes and gay people to blot out their differences, if only for three minutes at a time. Hadreas refuses to manufacture such pills for his fans. His sprawling post-pop draws our attention to the many ways in which changing ourselves can never resolve our memories of the past, posing an implicit question: Can we truly leave behind the people we’ve been, or have we merely learned to keep our eyes fixed on the promise of self-reinvention?
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