If Nature wouldn’t have made Sufjan Stevens, then Pitchfork would have. Mr. Stevens’ 2005 release, Illinois, got about as much cred as any record in recent memory, including #1 on Metacritic – even the big meanie heads at Pitchfork sang its praises. The fact that Stevens had vowed to make an album for all 50 states only added to his appeal – not only was he good, but he was also absurdly ambitious and clearly out of his mind.
Well, to be blunt, if you like the kind of stuff on Illinois, then you will like the stuff on Avalanche, Sufjan’s latest release. Claiming to be “extras and outtakes” from the before mentioned blockbuster, Avalanche goes above and beyond any ol’ compilation of leftovers. According to the Asthmatic Kitty website, Avalanche is in reality the 2nd half of the originally proposed double-disc that was to be Illinois. While the 2 disc idea was dropped early in recording, there was enough material present for a self-conscious Stevens to pick through, re-record, and release.
Everything you like about Illinois shows up on Avalanche, including Stevens’ soothing voice, the mellow acoustic guitar work, the sing-song trumpeting , and the sweet, sweet woodwinds. Yeah, it’s pretty soft and inoffensive, but no one ever accused him of being a hard-ass. Tracks like “Dear Mr. Supercomputer” push the energy and come close to rock out territory, but still, there’s way too many oboes going on to truly rock your socks off. Stevens’ appears to be a little self-conscious of this, calling one of the Chicago remixes the “adult contemporary easy listening version”. In an interview earlier this year he hinted at a new direction for his music, claiming to be sick of trumpets and his own voice.
But Avalanche isn’t any new direction, it’s banjos, overlapping vocals and descriptive lyrics about things never destined to have songs about them. While sameness is the rule, there are more than a few exceptions also, like the drunken guitar solo on “Springfield”, the killer note he hits with his voice on “The Mistress Witch from McClure”, and the electronic-ish sound of “Inaugural Pop Music for Jane Margaret Byne”. The album contains one solid song after the next, held together by Stevens’ masterful control of melody. The only real misstep here is the “Chicago” trifecta – even though they do sound different, it’s just too much, you know? Sufjan has way too many good songs to start bogging down records with multiple versions of them.
Avalanche marks the end of his elaborations on Illinois as a state, and though his ideas may not mesh the greatest with my Grandpa’s notions of it, he has accomplished a strange and excellent thing. I don’t know if anyone has learned anything about the flatland state because of him, but think about what a challenge he has presented himself with. It’s like if someone asked you to do a complicated dance to describe the last 100 years at Glacier National Park. Or something like that. Rumor has it that Oregon, Rhode Island, or Minnesota may be next, but I’m gonna go out on a sturdy limb and say West Virginia will not be next. God, I hate that place.
– Scott Roots