Songs don’t get much more stark and confessional than the ones written by Perfume Genius. That’s the alias for Mike Hadreas, who has used his first two albums — including this year’s widely praised “Put Your Back N 2 It” — to explore the kind of moments and memories many people would try to suppress. Art as therapeutic release is not a new tactic, but to lay it all out there night after night on tour — how would these very private dramas translate from an intricately produced album to a bar?
Surprisingly well was the answer Saturday at Iota. Hadreas was easy to stay transfixed on as he sat stage center behind a piano and almost willed these intensely personal stories from his mouth, often contorting his face and pushing them out through one side. “I run my mouth like a fool / I’ll be so quiet for you / Look like a child for you / Be like a shadow of a shadow of a shadow for you,” he sang on “Take Me Home,” a non-autobiographical song about a prostitute’s compulsive need to feel wanted.
Hadreas’s voice is tender, often drifting into falsetto, and is plenty expressive. Two bandmates added accompaniment on keyboard and either guitar or drums, but Hadreas’s singing was always at the forefront. In one of the more telling moments, he stopped “17” (which he has called “a gay-suicide letter”) halfway through the first verse to ask the sound man for an adjustment. Hadreas wanted more vocals — he wasn’t shrinking into these songs, he was commanding them in his own subtle way.
If only there were a bit more to command. Perfume Genius is clearly a vehicle for Hadreas’s words, but the mostly-empty arrangements left some songs in purgatory. On the few when drums provided a backbone, the emotional wallop was greater. It brought to mind John Lennon’s first post-Beatles solo work with “Plastic Ono Band,” only with Hadreas’s vocals the inverse of Lennon’s primal scream venting. The minimalism did help keep the club hushed, with hardly any idle chatter from even the corners or the back, and everyone singularly focused on the stage. Given the material, this was a show that could have felt voyeuristic but was instead a collective affirmation.