It’s tempting to imagine Neko Case — blissfully working away on her Vermont farm, milking a cow, chopping wood and doing various other agrarian tasks — being deeply attuned to the seasons.
Over the past decade, the fiercely independent singer-songwriter has settled into her own kind of seasonal pattern of releasing albums with three and four years between them.
Her show at the Lincoln Theatre on Wednesday — supporting her sixth studio album, “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You” — was subdued, colored by distinctly autumnal and reflective tones.
Playing the first of two consecutive nights at the historic U Street venue, Case fronted a lithe, shape-shifting backing quartet that she pushed through the set with an efficiency that was workmanlike at times. Perhaps that was due in part to the chest cold she has been trying to shake for more than a week, but in cranking through 20-plus songs, the banter with sidekick Kelly Hogan was kept to a minimum, and the songs stood squarely in the spotlight.
The pensive mood cast by the opening “Where Did I Leave That Fire” (“I saw my shadow looking lost, checking its pockets for some lost receipt”) hardly lifted during the nearly 80-minute set, though Case and Hogan’s harmonies soared over and across the melodies as gorgeously as ever.
In addition to longtime vocal partner and stage foil Hogan, the band was anchored by stalwart guitarist Jon Rauhouse and bassist Tom V. Ray, who bent sympathetically to a set of songs mainly drawn from Case’s three most recent studio albums. There were a few exceptions — notably a rousing version of “The Tigers Have Spoken” and a nervy take on one of her best songs, “Set Out Running.”
The core of the set was in beautiful and wistful compositions such as “City Swans,” “The Pharaohs,” “Lion’s Jaws,” “The Next Time You Say Forever” and “Calling Cards.” Case swept through these mid-tempo numbers with easy grace, glancing occasionally at Rauhouse, who spun shimmering figures that cast her vocals in sharp relief.
The main set concluded with a punky take on the new record’s “Man,” drawing the sold-out crowd out of what felt like a mesmerized reverie and into the loudest ovation of the night.
Case saved the two best songs from her beguiling new album for the encore: “Local Girl” and “Ragtime” drew the night’s two best performances from the band, punctuating the ebbs and flows like master craftsmen. By the time Hogan and Case mimicked the punchy horn chart of “Ragtime” with their voices, it seemed like Neko had resolved her autumn melancholy and was already thinking about spring.
Foster is a freelance writer.