I suppose a backlash towards Sufjan Stevens was inevitable at some point. He’s a wildly ambitious young singer/songwriter who’s been releasing work at an album per year pace for several now, while embarking on a supposed project (recording an album for each of the 50 states) that seems both overwhelming and perhaps a bit foolhardy at the same time. Well, we’re two albums (and a half, if you could this one) in now, and the knives have already come out. If anything, Conor Oberst can breath easier for awhile, knowing that the black turtleneck-wearing chin-strokers have a new favorite whipping boy.
I’m generally a pretty cynical guy, and I admit to getting burnt out on certain artists, but I’m also of the opinion that if an artist is working on another level (that is to say, if they’re creating consistently great music), then I welcome it all with open arms. The subtitle of The Avalanche (Outtakes And Extras From the Illinois Album) says it all, and as if Sufjan himself knows that another seventy-five minute album of b-sides is a bit much, the cover art also states, “shamelessly compiled by Sufjan Stevens.”
Because of all these things, I went into the release not expecting a whole lot, but fortunately Stevens has put together yet another huge batch of great songs. Sure, there probably doesn’t need to be three versions of “Chicago” (although the acoustic version has easily become my favorite), and like the original Illinois album it probably has a few too many little instrumental filler tracks, but on the flipside there are some downright amazing songs on the release that are well worth the price of admission alone.
After the opening album-titled track, the disc really kicks things off with “Dear Mr. Supercomputer,” a whirlwind of a track that finds multi-part rhythmic vocals floating over a bed of horns, funky bass, and rollicking drum fills that’s as exuberant as anything Stevens has done to date. “Adlai Stevenson” is just as solid, with marching snares, banjos, glorious woodwinds, and some of the best melody hooks on the release.
“Springfield, or Bobby Got A Shadfly Caught in his Hair” is a perfect track to illustrate what’s so nice about the collection in that it takes chances (with some ragged-edged guitars and oddly-keyed vocals) that the true album didn’t, but still manages to succeed. Although the second-half of the release isn’t quite as strong, it still contains gems like the playful electric piano and guitar duo of “No Man’s Land.” Based on how expansive Illinois and The Avalanche are compared to his previous two albums and figuring in his entire catalogue to date (including the minimal-electronics of Enjoy Your Rabbit), I think it’s safe to say that Stevens is perfectly capable of throwing out more musical surprises in the future. If you like his past work, this is well worth having, if you think he’s over-rated, this will provide more fodder for your ranting.