Sufjan Stevens has no new album to promote these days — his longstanding project to record an album for every state in the union is currently on hold; his most recent album, “The Avalanche” (Asthmatic Kitty), was a collection of outtakes; and he’s scheduled to release a compilation “Songs for Christmas” later this year. But don’t be misled into believing Stevens has scaled back his ambitions: The Christmas album is a five-CD collection, and he led a 14-piece band bedecked in butterfly wings at the sold-out Wiltern Monday.
Calling himself the Majesty Songbird and his band the Magical Butterfly Brigade, he performed a nearly two-hour show that was impressive in the deft balance between his often grandiose ideas and the Zen-like faith, modesty and acceptance of his songs. In “Casimir Pulaski Day,” he thanks the Lord for both the glory and “complications you could do without.” He can celebrate the virtues of Middle America on “Metropolis” (complete with dozens of inflatable Superman dolls tossed into the aud) and find humanity in the hearts of two serial killers (John Wayne Gacy Jr. and the Misfit, the latter based on Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”).
The songs unfold at a leisurely pace — the perf opens with the slowly building instrumental intro to “Sister” and reaches its climax with the vertiginous crescendos of “Majestic Snowbird” (the evening’s lone new tune) — and scoop up different styles seemingly at whim. A marching band romps through the intro of “The Transfiguration”; waltzes and other old-fashioned musical forms rub shoulders with passages influenced by minimalists such as Steve Reich or Philip Glass.
No matter how discordant the music became, however, Stevens makes sure it comes in for a soft landing: “Jacksonville” has a lovely Countrypolitan syncopation, and “Chicago” ends the show with the easy sway of the strings.
If at times the arrangements get a little cluttered, it really doesn’t matter. You get the feeling that for Stevens, the trip is more important than the destination (a quality that made his music work so well on the soundtrack to this summer’s “Little Miss Sunshine”).
While there were no revelations Monday night, Stevens’ set left the enthusiastic aud uplifted and emotionally satisfied. He remains one of the most talented singer-songwriters working today.
Opening act My Brightest Diamond also impressed. Led by Shara Worden (who also plays in Stevens’ band), the music certainly doesn’t stint on the melodrama. But Worden has a unique voice — part PJ Harvey, part Siouxsie Sioux and part Nina Simone — that cuts deeply and with stunning accuracy into the heart of a song.