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
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
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.