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Sufjan Stevens
The Avalanche
Asthmatic Kitty

Sean Guzik lives in Chicago. Recently, trapped in my indie-pop mindset, I asked him if he'd ever heard of Sufjan Stevens. "Who?"

Precisely. Here is a man living in the biggest city in the state of Illinois — a state that has seen two albums dedicated to its environs in the past two years — and he is unaware of them.

It's all too easy to get caught up in the blog-buzzing, pitchfork-wielding hipsterdom and think that Sufjan Stevens is a household name. A majority of Americans have not heard his music, and a majority never will. It's a shame, really. He is not ubiquitous (even if that is the presiding perception in the indie paradigm). Let the critics keep this in mind as they craft their inevitable and building backlash against the "hype," for it is a hype of their own creation.

The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras From the Illinois Album must be taken it for what it is. The words "outtakes" and "extras" appear in its title for a reason; it was not advertised as a cogent album. Anyone who levels the "uncohesive" criticism against this disc simply hasn't been paying attention. That it leaves a thematic impression at all should be a notable fact. Naturally, The Avalanche has much in common with Come On Feel the Illinoise. Reportedly, Illinois was originally going to be a double album; the songs that make up this collection were trimmed off in the sequencing of last year's magnum opus. The arrangements are still intricate and sweeping, the subject matter still reflective of an artist's outsider-impression of the Prairie State. The cover artwork is even of the same style, featuring a pastiche of those depicted on Illinois, along with several new characters.

But to say that The Avalanche and Illinois are redundant is like saying the New Testament is the same as the Old or The Lord of the Rings the same as the Silmarillion. Sure, the subject matter all comes from the same wellspring, but they're obviously quite different. Just as each of these works has a symbiotic relationship with its counterpart, The Avalanche and Illinois work together to create a contextually richer whole.

At 21 songs and 75 minutes, there's really too much to address adequately, but some highlights:

1) The "most uplifting arrangement'" award goes to "Adlai Stevenson." Rat-a-tat snare sounds out, like a little drummer boy gone berserk. A brass band marches along while flutes and clarinets weave crazy patterns over top. The result is mesmerizing.

2) With "The Mistress Witch From McClure" we find the album's most oddly touching lyrics. Like Flannery O'Connor gone awry, these are grotesque happenings described in a beautiful way. "If I'm hiding in the sleeves/ Of my coat/ When my father runs undressed/ He's pointing at my throat/ And my brother has a fit/ In the snow/ So we run back/ Scrambling for cover/ Oh my God/ No one came to our side/ To carry us away from danger/ Oh my God/ He left us now for dead." Deadpan observations about lust and rage, without qualification or the clutter of analysis, simply explaining what happened from a child's matter-of-fact perspective. As a whole, the lyrics on The Avalanche are less tautly focused than those on Illinois. There are a few exceptions (like the above quoted) but most convey a more impressionistic lyric sensibility.

3) Mr. Stevens has shown a fondness for instrumental interludes and this album proves no different. However, where previous efforts have largely utilized the instrumental as ethereal, mood-setting segue, The Avalanche features one that is hummable, and dare I say catchy. "Inaugural Pop Music for Jane Margaret Byrne" is an electronic-y pop song without words, and has been stuck inside my brain more times than I care to admit. As far as I can recollect, this is a first for a Sufjan instrumental.

4) It might smack of retread, but there are three alternate versions of the Illinois song "Chicago" on The Avalanche. Is this really necessary? Yes, actually. Here's why: "Chicago" was always a pleasant song, but with three additional treatments, it becomes a truly great song. Each unique take emphasizes a different aspect of the composition. It can be tender, majestic, and even a spastic rocker. I never would have expected three iterations of the same song to pack such a wallop, but they do.

No, this album is not superfluous — far from it. The Avalanche brings Stevens' exacting vision on Illinois into sharper focus. Without this disc we wouldn't know the wealth of content or depth of research that went into the project. Nor would we know the amount of whittling it took to bring Illinois down to 74 minutes. There are a lot of great songs that didn't make the cut; however, upon hearing the two albums side by side, the choices seem justified.

As it just so happens, Guzik was visiting me this past weekend. He told me he purchased Come On Feel the Illinoise and really enjoyed the first song. I guess that means Sufjan is one step closer to his purported ubiquity. Let the critics proclaim what they will — I say anything that brings this music closer to the masses is a good thing.

by Sam Ernst

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