This review was corrected on Jan. 17, 2006.
Since moving into its new home at the Time Warner Center, Lincoln Center has opened up its booking policy to a startling degree, pushing the boundaries of its American Songbook series with particular resolve. The open doors have allowed many a breath of fresh air into the complex, but few have blown in as bracingly as Sufjan Stevens — the Midwestern cult hero who made his Lincoln Center debut on Saturday night.
Stevens garnered plenty of critical acclaim with last year’s “Illinoise” album (issued by the micro-indie Asthmatic Kitty), but he’s been developing his spiritually centered chamber-pop aesthetic over the course of several years and several discs. At this perf, easily his grandest Gotham gig to date, he assembled a 17-piece ensemble — including an eight-person string section and a pair of glockenspiel players who doubled as backing vocalists — that delivered his songs with uncommon delicacy and grace.
Delicacy is a key component in the 30-year-old singer-songwriter’s songs. Opening with the contemplative “Casimir Pulaski Day” — a misty recollection of losing a loved one to cancer — he seldom allowed his high tenor to rise above a parched murmur. When traveling solo — many of the set’s songs started with Stevens, sans accompaniment, playing spare lines on guitar, banjo or piano — he was particularly riveting, notably on the piercing “Sister.”
Considering the fact that the ensemble hadn’t had a chance to work out the arrangements in front of a live audience, the orchestration was almost pathologically precise. The recorded versions of his work have been compared to “Forever Changes”-era Love, but Stevens is far less tethered to the rock paradigm — his embrace of Bacharach-styled intricacy is more akin to the work of Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon, whose wistful tone was evoked on the wintry “Chicago.”
Where he really differs from most of his influences, though, is his unreconstructed Christianity. Stevens is far more transparent in his faith than most of his peers, openly addressing God and seeing His handiwork at virtually every turn. On “Seven Swans,” for instance, Stevens began with a solo acoustic meditation on a bleak rural scene, but gradually built — both in intensity of arrangement and intensity of delivery — to a booming coda, in which he and his backing vocalists intoned “He is the Lord” no less than two dozen times.
While the spirit is clearly evident, Stevens doesn’t present himself as the leader of an indie-rock revival meeting. His is a matter-of-fact mysticism, almost monastic in its simplicity — as evidenced by the measured set closer “The Transfiguration,” which presented the biblical tale, in simple, declarative sentences, as a medieval folk ballad of sorts. Not designed as a feel-good end note, it nonetheless managed to impart a warming tinge to a cold winter’s night.