Perfume Genius's Unknowable Ecstasy
By Matt Mitchell
“To be gorgeous, even from the day you’re born to the day you die, is to be gorgeous only briefly,” Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong wrote in his novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Perfume Genius, the performer born Mike Hadreas, evokes that same emotion onstage. Since his debut, 2010’s Learning, Hadreas has deconstructed the banalities of attraction and attractiveness through human movement, and his catalog is an exclamation on how our bodily prisons can become delicate and powerful. Hadreas’s new album, Ugly Season, which he lovingly refers to as “the dance record,” was written and recorded just before 2020’s Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, but it is much more akin to the melodrama of a ballet or concerto than that project’s fluttering, beguiling grandeur. Despite the two-year gap between them, the records were originally slated to be released within a year of each other — and the pop alchemy of Immediately was fashioned in response to the process of composing Ugly Season.
“The way we made Ugly Season was a little more free,” Hadreas tells MTV News. “I didn’t have any limits or any ideas about process other than I had an energetic place I wanted the songs to go to and I needed them to be a certain amount of time and I wanted them to feel a certain way. I wanted them to be, you know, kind of operatic, but I didn’t care how that was executed.” Hadreas says a lot of the album resulted from improvising with his collaborators, producer/multi-instrumentalist Blake Mills and pianist Alan Wyffels. “But with Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, I wanted to make something a lot more songy and a lot more pared back. I tried to do everything with the least amount of elements possible, which is not something I thought about when I was making Ugly Season.”
Where Immediately was Hadreas’s most straight-forward record, incorporating country and disco influences into his pop vernacular, Ugly Season is much more experimental and worldly. It is as inspired by Bulgarian women’s choirs as it is Irish New Age icon Enya and Lebanese singer Fairuz. There are instrumental stretches of opulent strings harmonizing like intersecting gusts of wind and sermons of chambered vocals pressing against ambient space. Ugly Season was originally attached to “The Sun Still Burns Here,” his collaborative dance recital with artist Kate Wallich that Hadreas calls “a movement language” and a “utopian, sex culty” thing made up of patient, mystifying choreography. The show premiered in October 2019 at The Moore Theatre in Seattle and ran through January 2020 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. “I love to move in slow motion. I don’t know if it’s always really exciting to watch, but it feels good to me,” he adds, laughing. “The thing I was trying to do the most, or what I thought about the most, was trying to make something spiritual or almost religious.”
Even though Ugly Season and Immediately are dichotomous, they share a character. “Jason,” Hadreas’s catch-all pseudonym for some of the men in his life and imagination, arrives under different disguises. On Immediately, he’s a straight man having one-night stands with gay men; on Ugly Season’s “Hellbent,” he’s a drug dealer. Hadreas doesn’t know how to explain why he keeps talking to different Jasons in his music, attributing that uncertainty to why his Substack newsletter about process and creation didn’t pan out. “I realized I have no idea how to explain it,” he adds. “I can energetically feel all the reasons and I feel very smart and wise and patient when I’m picking words and picking notes, but when I try to explain it, I can’t. I think that’s why I made [Jason], because I don’t know how to explain it in any other way.”
Ugly Season is a conduit for Hadreas’s unknowable ecstasy and, despite its title, is his preservation of the eruptive, pirouetting motions that come with it. The record is bold and insular, and there’s something very innate yet otherworldly about the imagery it conjures. Just like his and Wallich’s dance, Hadreas’s album vision involves visually reckoning with his own body and others’, providing deft commentary on how they intertwine and recoil. The sparse, glittering jangle of “Pop Song” chronicles two stretching, breathing bodies becoming one; “Eye in the Wall” fashions a haunted, sprawling arrangement into a cinematic ode to the parts of someone else’s frame, rendering Hadreas as “full of nothing but love.”
In his live performances, Hadreas is always moving, improvising, and shifting. “[During the dance], I would be rolling around and I would come into contact with some feeling that I’ve been carrying around and I didn’t even know,” he adds. “You just become so used to the stories you tell yourself about yourself. You go to sleep and you wake up with them fully intact. You just don’t even question it, and you really should — because they’re usually lies. Sometimes the songs are like, ‘What if I was really into that? What if that was hot? Whatever darkness I feel, what if I was harnessing it instead of being haunted by it?’”
Stripping down emotionally in his work, Hadreas deconstructs himself to a molecular level artistically, pondering how he can give parts of himself away. It takes shape on his album covers just as much as his songs. Too Bright is a gender-fluid portrait of the singer. No Shape features him missing a pant leg. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately finds him shirtless. Ugly Season is a very naked and surreal rendering of his upper body, an indiscernible, almost “hideous,” image. “It’s heavy,” Hadreas says. “My time is spent thinking really awful things about myself. It’s physical, like I can feel [the] energy.” On his androgynous 2014 anthem “Queen,” he flips that hate and reshapes it into a tough, kaleidoscopic moment of pleasure and ego. On Immediately, he embodies the burdens of his own humanism and of how our bodies covet. On Ugly Season, he’s falling in love with the abstract glamour of being hideous.
That concept was captured in a companion short film by the artist Jacolby Satterwhite, who also created the film accompaniment for Solange’s When I Get Home. The two met over the phone in early 2020 and discovered their shared interest in presenting emotions in media that extend beyond music. The result of their collaboration is a portrait of utopian memory and an attempt at visualizing immense, inarticulable desires through the movement of bodies, a grand emphasis on the sensual story Hadreas tells throughout Ugly Season. “I just really love what [Satterwhite] does and I really trust him,” Hadreas says. “I trusted that he would understand where I’m coming from without really having to explain it.”
The day before we spoke, Hadreas spent an afternoon at a photo shoot. Despite being a performer whose live act is so tethered to a contorting body vulnerably laid bare, that openness isn’t second nature to him. Yet the confidence he displays is not so much forced for the camera as it is another extension of his Perfume Genius persona. “It’s not that I feel ready to get my picture taken, or that I even deserve to, or that I’m hot enough to be the focus of a photo shoot,” Hadreas notes. “When I got there, I decided to feel that way. It’s the same when I perform. I’m not super comfortable, sometimes, wearing the things that I wear or doing the things I do or saying the things I say before I go onstage. But when I’m onstage, I have made a decision to be comfortable and try to be more comfortable than anybody else.”
“Bitch, it’s ugly season, and I love it,” Hadreas sings gently on the title track. Narratively, the album is a familiar landscape, as Hadreas transcribes misanthropies laced with joyous spurts of queer euphoria. He tracks his own grief, of both unrequited love and self-doubt, and spirals them into paeans of tender confidence. Perfume Genius is not a monolithic character, but a channel for Hadreas to center and release parts of himself — the parts he writhes away onstage every night. He leaves an opening for his audiences to do the same. It’s a communal embellishment of confidence, a purging of doubts, a ballet reconfigured every night. “It’s a little battle against myself, but I also think of it as a portal for other people,” he adds. “I hope that’s sort of empowering, or that I just want to feel hot for an hour.”