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Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche

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Artist: Sufjan Stevens

Album: The Avalanche

Label: Asthmatic Kitty

Review date: Jul. 10, 2006

In music as in most imaginable venues, earnestness is considerably more rare than cleverness. The revelation that the doe-eyed young singer Sufjan Stevens had a rather shrewd sense of humor – a long-overdue revelation, perhaps, but in any case one more or less deferred until about a year ago – was refreshing, but it didn't exempt him from the expectations imposed by the poignant honesty of his first state-themed album, Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State. The Avalanche, an exhaustive collection of outtakes from the second of those albums, the grandiloquent Come On Feel The Illinoise, is cleverly earnest, not earnestly clever, and in that split hair lies the difference between a solid record and the kind of exceptional one we have rightly come to anticipate.

Illinois was not without the occasional headache, but on the whole it offered in spades the kind of songwriting that has made critics rhapsodize since Stevens left behind the obscurity of his first two records: gentle, shivering laments with unassumingly profound insights about family members and car rides; Rockwell-colored arrangements rife with woodwinds and light rhythmic complexities; plus a handful of swirling drone pieces with silly names. As the story goes, the discomfitingly prolific Stevens wrote twice as much material as was released, probably more, and what didn't make the initial cut was to be suppressed only for as long as it took for the (Illi)noise to die down. Now, "shamelessly compiled" (quoth the cover) as a holdover until the supposedly two-disc Idaho treatment comes out, The Avalanche is, perhaps predictably, a middling reconstitution of its legitimate predecessor.

An appropriate first reaction is to wonder why some of its better songs, notably the mid-album pair "Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair" and "The Mistress Witch from McClure (or, The Mind That Knows Itself)," didn't make it onto the first release. After digesting all of what might have been a behemoth double album, the reason appears to be the degree of affinity: rather than a rougher or sadder or perkier record than Illinois, The Avalanche is foremost a similar record. It recalls the other thoroughly, in progression – from the somber, vaguely faithful opening number to the Steve Reich-style endpiece and the alternation of lush and meditative in between – and in character, from the extravagant song titles (the best here being "The Vivian Girls Are Visited in the Night by Saint Dargarius and his Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies") to the three somewhat-reworked-but-equally-confessional versions of "Chicago."

The greater trouble of The Avalanche, though, is that it flattens that character – the humble candor behind beauties like "For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti" or "Casimir Pulaski Day" – instead of refining it. The westward expansion of Illinois found Stevens shifting slowly from autobiography to historical mythology, and doing so with great tact. But the peril of moving outward without changing the personal tone is that the same songs risk coming across as insincere, a fate that much of these outtakes succumb to. The slow and pretty "Saul Bellow" is a sparser, colder ventriloquism of "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."; "The Pick-Up" explores the same themes as "Chicago," but not as convincingly. Andrew Bird's tendency to strain for rhymes that end up sounding glib begins to dog Stevens in "Dear Mr. Supercomputer," more acutely than it did in the supremely glib "Decatur." On Illinois, the question are you writing from the heart? was asked by a vision of Carl Sandburg and articulated by a few cooing Illinoisemakers; there it was the asking that was important, but here the answer seems more relevant.

An appropriate second reaction, then, is to wonder: why surround the wheat with more chaff? These songs lack the rawness and simplicity that characterized Michigan – and, significantly, its outtakes – but the knowledge that they were cut from the same cloth as their deeply similar counterparts on Illinois does not so much elucidate or pardon their origins as adulterate them. Though there's no fault in overwriting first and winnowing later, the familiarity of most of The Avalanche gives the unsettling feeling that Stevens has been on autopilot for the last year and a half. His filler remains a lesser man's gold, but with few gems and no consistent hold on the honesty and dignity of his earlier work, The Avalanche is right to be relegated to outtake status.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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