The term avant-garde gets thrown around easily in today’s artistic sphere, as technological advancements and genre fluidity open the door for sonic innovation at more rapid paces. I am a sucker for listening experiences that challenge my ears’ desire for predictability and push me out of my comfort zone. I never felt like I would find an album that fulfills this desire for novelty and epitomizes the meaning of avant-garde until I listened to Ugly Season by Perfume Genius.
I have been following the career of Michael Alden Hadreas, also known as Perfume Genius, since the release of Too Bright in 2014, as I was struck by how his music overflows with an abundance of passion, emotion, and creativity. His 6th studio album, Ugly Season, was released on June 17, 2022, and was met with critical acclaim and praise.
Each track on Ugly Season is completely distinct tonally and instrumentally. While it might seem that this would create a disjointed holistic listen, they all share and evoke a sense of gorgeous unease, discomfort, and awe.
Listeners are lulled into this project starting with the entrancing song “Just a Room.” This track appropriately sets the tone for the album, being both unconventional and classically beautiful, and it blends seamlessly into “Herem.” A standout for me on the album, “Herem” is reminiscent of Son Lux’s production style. It is haunting, featuring Hadreas’ classic falsetto, vulnerable tonality, and a harmonic minor chord progression.
The following tracks, “Teeth” and “Pop Song” both features staccato melodic rhythms with choppy, eclectic, and jarring lyrics that are difficult to decode. The lullaby-inspired arpeggios in “Teeth” and the uplifting drums and synths of “Pop Song” propel the album forward in a more optimistic way.
“Scherzo” provides an abrupt break and represents a sonic shift in the project. It serves as a palette cleanser and is the last glimpse of tranquility until the closing track.
“Ugly Season” and “Eye in the Wall” begin the second half of the album with a rhythmic, more structured layout, strongly contradictory to the more aimless, ambiance of the former tracks. Both focus on instrumentals with clear multicultural influences, adding to the depth of experimentation explored in this project. While minimal, the lyrics in “Ugly Season” use vague imagery to paint a grotesque yet triumphant picture of Hadreas’ embrace of his true self and nature, or his ‘ugly season.’
“Photograph” is the most traditional song on the album, which is a hefty claim given that it is still far from ordinary. The lyrics and themes of the album are the most on display here, with Hadreas longing for a deep love and connection with his partner.
Ugly Season is the most creative concoction of acoustic, electric, and electronic elements that I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. Its dissonance and discomfort are not designed to be played in a casual group setting and are an acquired taste, and the imperfections and risks taken are fully engulfing and demand a listener’s full attention.
I have spent hours thinking about how I would describe this album to someone and present an argument for why it is in the running for album of the year. But the more I analyze each track, the more it becomes apparent that Perfume Genius’ music is meant to resist definition and is better enjoyed if the listener is open-minded and surrenders to the album’s journey.
Music sometimes feels homogenized in an attempt to increase popularity and appeal to a wider audience. However, music is an art form first, and Perfume Genius powerfully reminds us of this with each new project he releases. Ugly Season perpetuates that idea even further, challenging audiences’ conception of what music should be and paving the way for other artists to defy expectations in pursuit of creative innovation.
Image Credit: Album art by Perfume Genius
Written by: Jordan Young