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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: The Avalanche


1) The Avalanche; 2) Dear Mr. Supercomputer; 3) Adlai Stevenson; 4) The Vivian Girls Are Visited In The Night By Saint Dargarius And His Squadron Of Benevolent Butter­flies; 5) Chicago (acoustic version); 6) The Henney Buggy Band; 7) Saul Bellow; 8) Carlyle Lake; 9) Springfield, Or Bobby Got A Shadfly Caught In His Hair; 10) The Mistress Witch From McClure (Or, The Mind That Knows Itself); 11) Kaskaskia River; 12) Chicago (adult contemporary easy listening version); 13) Inaugural Pop Music For Jane Margaret Byrne; 14) No Man's Land; 15) The Palm Sunday Tornado Hits Crystal Lake; 16) The Pick-Up; 17) The Perpetual Self, Or 'What Would Saul Alinsky Do?'; 18) For Clyde Tombaugh; 19) Chicago (multiple personality disorder version); 20) Pittsfield; 21) The Undivided Self (For Eppie And Popo).

General verdict: Second Illinoise, same as the first.

The subtitle Outtakes And Extras From The Illinois Album! is generally correct, except for one important detail: many, if not most, of the songs on this follow-up were actually written with the idea of a double album in mind — in fact, a triple one, if we remember that Sufjan typically makes 70-minute long CDs, roughly equaling three sides of traditional vinyl. The idea was even­tually scrapped, although I do not understand why: Sufjan's fans were already quite well used to the man's sprawl, and I cannot imagine any of Sufjan's reviewers actually listening to all of his records attentively all the way through anyway.

In any case, The Avalanche is simply the second half of Illinois — a little less liked by Sufjan himself, for obvious reasons of selection, and also containing some genuine moments of overkill (such as the three additional versions of ʽChicagoʼ), but on the whole, it goes without saying that if you loved the style, ideas, and feels of Illinois, you are dutifully obligated to give a little love to its younger brother as well. Unfortunately, it also makes the predicament: there are no new general words I can say about Avalanche that have not already been said about Illinois — and very few specific comments I could make about any of the individual tracks, since they, too, tend to cuddle together into one big sentimental glop, setting exactly the same mood of a never-ending Carnival of the Melancholic Woodland Pixies.

As a single example, I will take the title track — after all, it wasn't selected as the title track for nothing, so it must be somewhat symbolic of the entire experience. If you listen hard enough, you might note that the distinctive three-note chord sequence of the song, appearing around the 1 minute mark, is actually an exciting musical idea, slightly disrupting the supersmooth flow of the song and giving it a sharper edge. But it never gets properly explored — and the song, suppo­sedly describing a one man's hopeful journey to Illinois and culminating in a series of anthemic come-ons ("come on, Stone! come on, Star! come on, Snow! come on, Car!") is ultimately bogged down in monotonous and expressionless stomp. Yes, I fully admit that there might be people who like being urged on by a voice seemingly belonging to a human being who had been thoroughly and meticulously decalorized for months and months. Myself, I am still amazed at how it is even possible to write so many quasi-anthemic songs whose power cannot be measured even in a single joule.

In a general setting like this, it only gets worse when the songwriter throws in symbolic quota­tions from his betters — such as the "1-2-3-4-5-6-7 all computers go to heaven" line in ʽDear Mr. Supercomputerʼ, obviously referring to you-know-what; the song itself, however, reminds me more of the plaintive streak of The Kinks (Sufjan's "Oh-my-God-I-can't-believe-it..." shares similarities with ʽMr. Pleasantʼ), except that, once again, there is absolutely nothing to get riled up about here. Not a whiff of anger, not the slightest touch of offensiveness, not the smallest bit of evidence that this singer is a human being of flesh and blood and not a disembodied spirit or a Platonic idea. Come to think of it, is it really a sign of total humility when you sing like that, or a subtle demonstration of unprecedented arrogance?..

Maybe it would not be oh so painful like that if not for the additional insult of the long-winded song titles that float out so gratuitously, senselessly, and pretentiously. ʽInaugural Pop Music For Jane Margaret Byrneʼ, for instance. Clearly, the first female mayor of Chicago might very well deserve some pop music in her honor, but what do these minute and a half of elevator-ish key­board tones, closely resembling the kind of muzak that plays when you are accidentally redirected to some sleazy phishing website, has to do with true «pop», let alone «inaugural»? Gimmicks like that, strewn all over Sufjan's catalog but particularly viciously festering in his Illinois stage, only further my conviction that the man's art exists primarily in order to give critics something to write about, rather than give ordinary people something to enjoy from the bottom of their hearts.

Subsequently, even when Sufjan pokes a bit of fun at himself and subtitles two of his alternate arrangements for ʽChicagoʼ as «adult contemporary easy listening version» and «multiple perso­nality disorder version», respectively, I am inclined to take this at far stronger face value than we are supposed to. Because that first version, want it or not, is adult contemporary easy listening (as is a very large chunk of Sufjan's standard catalog, to tell the truth), and that second version, peppered with vocal overdubs a-plenty, does suggest that, while Stevens is probably (and hope­fully) not truly suffering from multiple personality disorder, he is somewhat obsessed with the concept. The only problem is that he is not very interesting as a vocalist all by himself, and it is not clear whether this issue can be solved by recording multiple vocal parts and having them bounce off each other. Like, when you multiply boring by boring, does boring squared equal exciting and involving? Not for me it doesn't.

As an optimistic and excusatory conclusion, I do have to add that I totally admire and respect the man's working ethic. To do so much research on the history and culture of Illinois, to spend so much time writing so many songs, to play most of the instruments in the studio himself — in terms of dedication to an idea, Sufjan should be a source of inspiration to us all. And it is not his fault, after all, that he does not possess the slightest spark of songwriting genius — in fact, I would be somewhat surprised if he did, because meticulous and hyper-productive work like this rarely, if ever, goes hand-in-hand with true genius. Herein lies the importance of Avalanche: far more significant is the mere fact that it exists, rather than the emotional and artistic value of its actual songs. Like, some people probably learned who Adlai Stevenson, Saul Bellow, and Saul Alinsky were from listening to it (let alone Jane Byrne) — surely there is something to be said about pure educational value, too.


  1. Honestly George? Yellow font on white background absolutely does not work... How about orange, or something?

  2. PLEASE ditch the virtually unreadable yellow type!

  3. Yellow type is proof that George is an incompetent webmaster and critic.

  4. Do away with the yellow font, George. It's illegible unless I highlight it.

  5. I like this one quite a bit honestly. Even if it's not your thing, you have to admit it's somewhat unusual to find an album's worth of outtakes from an "iconic" album that is every bit as good as what made it onto the album proper.

    Indeed, I think that if this set of tracks had been released with John Wayne Gacy, Casmir Pulaski Day, and Feel the Illinoise added in it would have been just as well received as the official album.

  6. Do yellow always looks splendid ...