The Avalanche: Outtakes & Extras from the Illinois Album!
he avalanche in question isn’t an act of God or nature, but rather a Chevrolet, which is exactly the type of public-gets-personal hookup that Sufjan excels at. Next to the truck, the cover depicts Sufjan hero-like, an apparent mock-up of his past run-ins with Superman and DC Comics, but it would be just as easy to interpret this as campy masturbation. There are few other artists with Sufjan’s naked ambition and titanium self-belief, and most of them are holed away making Chinese Democracy.
But despite an overwhelming amount of schlutz, we must continue to take Sufjan seriously, partly because dude is deathly serious, mostly because he’s yet to show a chink in his songwriting armor. The Avalanche doesn’t really represent that chink either, especially if you handicap it as an odds ‘n’ sods companion disc. Sufjan is bound in unholy union with the Epic Ballad, but his albums work because he intersperses the fence-swinging with state-specific songs that, while rarely less weighty, are at least respites from his ever-serious examinations of self and God and God-self and childhood—see “Decatur” or “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” These moments suggest that Sufjan’s state themes keep his albums ticking along, even if they’re not what make them successful.
There are fewer such detours on The Avalanche, and if Sufjan’s not just picking Illinois associations out of a hat for kicks, he’s infinitely more inspired than we could possibly imagine; and suffice to say that John Wayne Gacy makes for a more compelling subject than Adlai Stevenson.
Anyone expecting a pared down, contented Sufjan can bugger off. If anything, The Avalanche chases his caprice and whimsy further down the rabbit hole. Stevens revisits his strangely ambient Enjoy Your Rabbit days, filling space with tracks like “Kaskaskia River” or the somnambulant “The Undivided Self (For Eppie and Popo).” Initially refreshing in the face of Sufjan’s anal arrangements, these asides are easy omissions from the Illinois repertoire. Likewise, “Carlyle Lake’s” breezy Sufjan-izing of the Mac’s “Don’t Stop” screams “MercymercyUNCLE” about as loudly as anything Stevens has ever laid down.
It seems unreasonable to expect true cohesion or purpose from an outtakes album, and neither is provided here, even if any of these 21 tracks, including three different versions of “Chicago,” could easily slide unnoticed onto Illinois. Repetition dooms the chaff, as too many songs end with a community hymnal or galloping horn.
But the occasional reminder of Sufjan’s bright emotional tripwires reminds why his art can be so devastating: The violent familial portrait, “The Mistress Witch from McClure (or, The Mind That Knows Itself),” requires only a prickly bed of banjo chords and a simple A-B-C-B rhyme scheme to have your heart circling its wagons. Sufjan’s win-big-or-go-home arrangements work, too, on the downstream current “Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in his Hair” and “Pittsfield,” both featuring surprisingly tart guitar work.
Sufjan likes to play with extremes, which is both why Illinois was equally bloated and brilliant and why Axl Rose comparisons are grotesquely funny and “no, really, that’s not funny.” It’s why The Avalanche, all 75 minutes of it, now exists for Mrs. Stevens and the 14 other people who didn’t think Illinois lasted long enough. Sufjan gets a pass as long as he continues to twist moments of clarity and illusion from humble ingredients, but the grapes are spent and the wine is starting to taste watered down. The Spaghetti Incident came next. Reel it in, kid.