Review Summary: Unmake my name
Pick no bones, erect no pretexts: tune your ears to Perfume Genius (aka Michael Hadreas) immediately. Full disclosure, I have neither detailed familiarity with his full body of work nor, from what I have heard, any particular interest in exploring it any further. His magnetic new record Ugly Season
has been hailed as a striking departure
, and I am more than happy to embrace the latter half of that description for all it’s worth on the strength of the former. Capisci? This thing is *striking as all hell*, a whirl of chamber pop, modern classical, (sigh) post-industrial and whatever else, dancing from style to style, beat to beat with breathtaking fluidity. It’s tempting to chart it as a dazzling hybrid, yet it takes the specificities of each constituent element in its stride without belonging entirely to any given one.
This collectedness owes much to the record’s tactile qualities: Ugly Season
was written for choreography, which accounts for both its pulsating rhythms and its tantalising ambiguity of space and setting (a stark contrast with the dreary white walls of Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
’s hipster cafe). At points, this is background context for pieces that need no pretext for their danceability, as on “Pop Song” and the splendid “Eye In The Wall”; at others, it’s a convenient raison d’etre for cuts that would be charitably passed off as ‘atmospheric’ were this a regular 100%-music album. This latter camp ranges from preludes to more captivating tracks (“Just a Room”) to dead spaces where we as an audience seize that thought of an accompanying immersive dance piece and visualise for dear life while Perfume Genius dutifully upholds the classically-tinged motions of ye olde kitsche limminalle soundetrack (“Scherzo”).
Neither of these are disastrous; we will write them off with a pretentious excuse (a side-effect of true experimentation
) and focus on the core of the album. This, shock horror, is not made up of concerns of medium and pacing: it’s a melting pot of light and darkness where each side retains its individual distinction but takes on an often nebulous outline (see: artwork). These contortions of shading follow no fixed form - they pan out as anything from a murky overlap, as per “Photograph”’s brilliant mingling of post-industrial gloom with the baroque dalliance of Perfume Genius past, to a convectional interchange, as per “Eye In The Wall”, the riveting central segment of which sees an ambient sunrise break over the Talking Heads-esque night of the living dead that churns over its opening stretch. It’s never just formalism - each moment of tension or transition brims with kinetic potential. The record’s demands too much physical manifestation or reaction to get tangled in its abstraction. Ugly Season
darkness isn’t just for show; it’s a place to move your body.
That darkness is sufficiently pervasive that it’s tempting to hear Ugly Season
as menacing. On closer inspection, however, this side of the album resonates much less for its threat than for its undefined mass of possibilities. There’s something initially unsettling to its stylistic and structural unpredictability, yet a little familiarisation yields swift results: the early standout “Herem”, for instance, goes from deeply haunting to stunningly beautiful across a small handful of repeats, and neither lens diminishes its power. This, of course, has much to do with the real
core of the album, or the core-to-its-core: queerness, aesthetic or otherwise. Blurring familiar denominations, redefining once-unknown space as a new source of attraction, forging a new identity on the margins of traditional contrasts? Yuh-uh. In a similar sense to Xiu Xiu’s chamber work (perhaps the fairest overarching comparison to be made here), Hadreas carves out precious moments of intimacy in soundscapes that would otherwise tend toward dourness, his arrangements and performance so delicate that not one of them is to be taken for granted in its form or nature. His music makes its own space and negotiates its own codes against the established order-of-things, and it feels and sounds right
because he lives out a truth in these compositions - so much so that it hardly needs his throughly androgynous vocal performance to ram the point home any further. Let it be known, though, those stylings are a strong vehicle for strong melodies.
But never mind mere melodies - how good are those redefinitions wholesale! Going into “Pop Song” for the first time, I was all set to roll my eyes at what, surely, could only pan out as a crass lunge for the total opposite; imagine my surprise at how it wears its namesake like a loose-fitting coat over gorgeously understated hooks, sketching a disarmingly pure likeness of the #pop #song’s simplest qualities without even approaching something you’d mistake for the real deal. It’s the kind of thing that offers concrete form for that flim catch-all that the squares still call art pop
. Slinky Subversion: 1・Clumsy Inversion: 0; touché, señor Perfume. As far as all-out crass gestures go, though, you’ll struggle to find any to compare with “Hellbent”. By far the most turbulent cut here, this track superimposes the irregularity of guitar feedback over the evenness of a tremolo-filtered synth pad, two kinds of modulation in dialogue with one another through their differences. It doesn’t really amount to a full “song”, but the clash of tones is at least engaging enough to bridge the distance; view it in the scheme of the album’s queerness, however, and it very much does amount to a knockout in style-substance fusion.
As touched on earlier, not all experiments are as successful. The title-track’s abrupt lurch into dub, say, is more valuable as a gesture of departure than for its strength as a song, but it’s struggle to hold such instances as more than minor wobbles in a whirl as marvellous for its unity as its eclecticism. And that’s it. Ugly Season
neither gets nor needs a real conclusion. It’s about open possibilities, not fixed forms or closed statements, and moreover, it’s the kind of music that speaks perfectly well for itself. Perfume Genius could easily have made this as a wilfully oblique record; the reality is mercurial, intoxicating and richly creative at every turn, and you now know this. Get out there and get lost in it.