“Ugly” is a gloriously loaded term, and while everyone may have different interpretations of what constitutes something (or someone) as ugly, we all know it when we see it. Unseemly, unpolished. Grisly, grotesque, or, at its simplest, aesthetically displeasing. For queer people especially, ugliness and beauty go hand in hand. If the notion of camp, a once defining element of homosexuality, is built on this foundation of extravagance warped to the preposterous (and humorously so), then ugliness’s torrid affair with beauty can disrupt our understandings of the two words’ polar opposite meanings. Ugliness can be beautiful, and beauty can land the beast.
Michael Hadreas of Perfume Genius leans into his own definition of ugly—one that takes the aforementioned binary, twists it, and leaves its corpse bleeding on the side of the road—with Ugly Season, delivering his most experimental, wandering, and gorgeously unkempt album to date. Spanning over 52 minutes with just ten tracks, it’s his longest record and his most sprawling in its soundscape; we’ve never heard a range of instrumentation on a Perfume Genius record quite like this before.
In its midsection, a jazzy piano riff on “Scherzo” bleeds into the minacious reggae beats of the title track “Ugly Season”, all before careening into an extended disco outro on “Eye in the Wall”. Though Ugly Season’s composition may be rooted in pop, its attitude toward genre is flippant at best. It doesn’t just bend genre; it threatens to break it apart and snap it back together.
For these reasons and more, Ugly Season is an ugly album—at least by pop music’s standards. By disavowing a distinct category with which we may define the 40-year-old singer’s sixth studio album, Hadreas takes us on a steep, though not altogether unsurprising, departure from his previous work. The man who once acrimoniously declared, “No family is safe when I sashay” and hatched the most infectious hook of his career with 2017’s “Slip Away”, has always danced around the edges of what constitutes pop music.
Soaring guitar riffs and blazing synthesizers aplenty, his previous records covered everything from addiction and physical abuse to sultry queer yearning, but on Ugly Season he belies his more wry, outward-looking contemplations for a lyrically indirect approach. In the album opener, “Just a Room”, the sparse lyrics are warbled and decidedly elusive as he coos, “No pattern / No bloom / where I’m taking you.” Is it a message to a lover, a past self, or perhaps the listeners themselves, a sneaky preview of the desultory nature of the record to follow?
Hadreas has always proven to be a gifted lyricist and composer, at once headstrong and impossibly fragile, who knows how to tell stories filled with tragedy, theatrics, and even a dash of humor. On Ugly Season though, gone are his self-immolating cries of loneliness and clever takedowns of heterosexual establishmentarianism that embellished the genesis of his career. What takes their place are enigmatic musings on grief, tracks that swell beyond the eight-minute mark, and uncanny arrangements stitched together in a Frankensteinian patchwork of phantasmagorical harmonies.
His fascination with the male body as a site of aesthetic and erotic beauty—its capacity to beckon through tenderness juxtaposed against its primal rigidity—does however make its wonted few appearances in his lyrics, as do metaphors of fruit that have a long history in queer culture. The cheekily titled “Pop Song” builds off of a crackling chime beat as Hadreas croons, “Our body is stretched / And holding one breath / And sharpen the pull / And sever the flesh” before his tenor voice is underlined by the bass of another male voice to repeat “Harvest the pit / And spit out the rest / To shoulder our pain.” It’s his most accessible song on the record and arguably his most gruesome.
All of that is not to say the body of Ugly Season has no connective tissue to weld it together. The disjointedness of the sound and lack of a clear narrative through-line create an at-first head-scratching array of emotions that, in the hands of a lesser skilled artist and production team (which includes longtime partner Alan Wyffels, producer Blake Mills, and engineer Joseph Lorge, among others), would contradict and ultimately nullify each other. But that confluence of emotions stacked on top of, beside, and at times away from one another is precisely the point.
Toward the end of the album on “Hellbent”, a younger Hadreas is belligerent, possibly drunk or high, on the side of the highway and bleeding from his arm as he hysterically searches for help. As an ambient synth chord butts up against an angry guitar and percussive streak before devolving into a vortex of astringent discord, Hadreas trills, “If I make it to Jason’s and put on a show / Maybe he’ll soften and give me a loan”, referencing the misanthropic straight lover of his previous album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (2020).
Told from a perspective in hindsight, this moment of desperation, frenzy, exhaustion, and all the shame it dredges up suggests forgiveness on behalf of a wiser Hadreas to his former self, even if the wayward Hadreas of all those years ago hasn’t fully been buried in the past. In life, our ugliest moments can’t be excised from the improved versions of the selves we may become, nor can the memories exist separately from our presents and our futures. Ugliness is unavoidable—better to dive into it, redefine what it means to ourselves, and give the world one hell of a show.