Pham opens ‘Ugly‘ with a lonely bouquet of deliberately delicate guitar notes to show us he is capable of creating conventional beauty. It’s natural & real, creating expectations that he immediately subverts with a glitchy hi-hat, slightly too loud & too close for comfort, like a harbinger of doom admonishing us that all may not be well here. Read more, here.
It becomes clear a few moments in that this will not be a typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus song, which only adds another layer to Ugly‘s blanket theme of asymmetry & instability. When a song fails to follow an ABAB “through-composed” format – that omnipresent staple of modern pop music – it can sound either refreshing or foreboding. Pham is obviously aiming for the latter, but successfully achieves both with a simple strophic structure that might sound more at home on an early Dylan album than deep in the throes of a trap vs future bass firefight.
At first, Ugly rumbles along to an eerie, almost peaceful cadence. A muffled kick seems to stumble in time with the despondency of lyrics that muse, “When everyone you know is beautiful, you feel ugly,” & a snarling snare seems to lash out against the inevitable conclusion of that thought process. Clean electric guitar arpeggios ominously echo a dissonant half step. The sub-bass broods quietly in the background to provide a rumble of discontent that runs just under the apparent musical calm on the song’s surface.
About halfway through the track, however, there is an abrupt change in tone. Like the first brutal on-screen kill in a horror film that confirms all your worst suspicions, the disembodied lead vocal is ripped in half & something ‘other’ crawls into the light.
That something ‘other’ quickly turns into the dark theme music to what sounds like the parade march of a conquering army. Accompanied by a triumphant percussive score that is saturated with victorious waves of rides & crashes, Pham lets loose a horde of sinister synths that crack his song open & desecrate its streets. It sounds vaguely like an EDM parody of an orchestral symphony – royal brass, melancholic string, & mournful woodwind sections all accounted for. The March of the Ugly King, in G-sharp major. It’s the tour de force of an occupying force, because in Pham’s world, Ugly is not who you really are. It’s external. It’s barbarian.
It’s allowing something alien to become who you really are.
It works on an instinctual, animal level, reminiscent of Monster vs Angel, last year’s badass bipolar ballad by experimental producer & mood king WDL. Ugly follows a similar character arc, beginning with the gathering clouds of stripped-down notes from a solitary plucked instrument & slowly evolving into a full-fledged electronic thunderstorm, as a way to illustrate an internal struggle. But where Monster vs Angel ultimately decides that both sides are necessary to complete the title character’s narrative, Pham prefers to be ugly.
DEEP DIVE (NERDS ONLY)
This predilection toward ugliness is a vein that a lot of modern indie producers have been opening over the past few years. You may have noticed an increased emphasis on asymmetry & discordance in the music of many of your favorite artists as well.
It rears its head not only in the emergence of more aggressive, less melodic genres like trap, dub, psychedelic, hardstyle, & anything with ‘future’ in the genre title, but also in the limited frequency range & glitchy stylistic choices of more subdued genres like downtempo, chillout, & trip hop. Where the aural holy grail of mainstream music used to be a pretty, padded wall of sound with all frequencies in the spectrum softly blending into each other & equally represented to the ears, these days that wall is crumbling, & it isn’t by accident.
Where high-fidelity used to be the gold standard, today the lo-fi label is worn like a badge of honor. Where recording engineers used to cover their studios in foam to eliminate acoustic reflections, today producers are taking their mics to the streets to record anything from bird songs to pedestrian traffic to add to their tracks as white noise.
Where digital music should have rendered obsolete the term ‘copy of a copy,’ vinyl album sales are growing almost as fast as streaming services. Stable rhymes are out; assonant rhymes are out & about. And in an era where percussion perfection is never more than a few clicks away, producers are instead laboring long hours to add subtle sound imperfections & tiny timing errors to their beats in an attempt to make them sound more human.
The message is loud & clear: Beautiful’s been done; we’re so over it.
Maybe it’s human to be ugly.
END OF DEEP DIVE