Sufjan Stevens: The Avalanche
Asthmatic Kitty

Don't be fooled by the 'outtakes and extras' tag on the cover of Sufjan Stevens's The Avalanche. It's anything but a grab-bag of leftovers, sketches, or half-baked ideas but rather a polished companion to Illinois with many songs on the two discs counterparts of one another. In fact, Stevens originally planned to release the latter as a double album of approximately 50 songs before opting for a more digestible song total. Upon turning his attention to the orphaned material in late 2005, Stevens eventually found himself with 21 finished tracks including the pivotal title song, an early candidate for Illinois but eventually featured as a bonus track on the vinyl release.

As the eccentric author of eclectic songs about Saul Bellow, marching parades, Pittsfield, steel factories, Carlyle Lake, and Adlai Stevenson often clothed in baroque arrangements, Stevens proves himself to be equal parts troubadour, raconteur, and alchemist (apparently, he's embarking on a “50 States Project”—Michigan and Illinois immortalized to date—that, at this juncture, might seem Quixotic or even Sisyphean). Lyrically, the songs are more allusive than direct, with Stevens addressing his subject matter impressionistically. The most affecting moments are those where the purity of Stevens' spring water voice is heard most nakedly (compare the stark version of “Adlai Stevenson” on The Sound the Hare Heard to the marching band treatment on The Avalanche); the acoustic version of “Chicago” is particularly heavenly, especially when accompanied by a lovely two-note guitar motif that sings amidst gentle acoustic lattices, while the elegiac “Pittsfield” equals it in beauty.

The album isn't perfect. Evocatively titled instrumentals (“The Vivian Girls Are Visited In the Night by Saint Dargarius and his Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies,” “Kaskaskia River,” “Inaugural Pop Music for Jane Margaret Byrne,” “The Palm Sunday Tornado Hits Crystal Lake,” “For Clyde Tombaugh,” “The Undivided Self (for Eppie and Popo)”) add atmosphere but also lengthen an already-long collection, the guitar solo in “Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in his Hair” makes Neil Young sound like Pat Metheny, and, yes, “Chicago” is lovely, but including three versions is excessive. Still, Stevens possesses a remarkable melodic gift and a fecund imagination, and if the arrangements are sometimes overly ornate (a multitude of instruments—banjos, horns, woodwinds, choirs, sleigh bells, glockenspiel—serves as a literal palette for Stevens), that hardly renders them any less remarkable.

August 2006