Sufjan Stevens | The Avalanche: Outtakes & Extras From the Illinois Album (Asthmatic Kitty)

Predictably, The Avalanche is merely a continuation of the emotionally resonant “list songs” of Illinois; not so predictably, these songs are in most cases more than mere leftovers.

The Avalanche
, Sufjan Stevens’s long-awaited companion to 2005’s Illinois, is nearly as breathtakingly expansive as its predecessor. According to various reports, the sprawling Illinois was initially conceived as an even more sprawling double LP, but was ultimately trimmed back to just 22 songs totalling 75 minutes (clearly the meaning of the word “just” is highly subjective as it appears here). The 21 songs and instrumental bridges comprising The Avalanche run 75 minutes as well, and so the full scope of what was arguably 2005’s most artistically relevant and conceptually ambitious pop album stands revealed at last. In a modern world in which undercooked singer-songwriters who are as hamfisted as they are precocious jockey for attention among the college rock set, Stevens seems downright important with his truly peerless knack for crafting indelible melodies, literate songs, and refreshingly inventive pop arrangements. Predictably, The Avalanche is merely a continuation of the emotionally resonant “list songs” of Illinois; not so predictably, these songs are in most cases more than mere leftovers.

The most baffling omission from the parent disc is The Avalanche’s first and title track, a wide-eyed folk song that culminates in a musical pastiche combining such seemingly disparate elements as banjo music and choral backing vocals, and approaches the disarming brilliance and stark beauty of Illinois’ triumphant ballads “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “Jacksonville.” The jubilant “Adlai Stevenson” is a playful tribute to the notoriously hesitant failed presidential candidate that asks in its capricious refrain, “Adlai, Adlai, what did you say, and what is the answer?” as marching band drums and handclaps join with horns and reed instruments to provide a colorful musical backdrop. Prickly literary giant Saul Bellow is given props of a kind in a song bearing his name, the sort of laconic banjo strum that Stevens has gradually been perfecting for years now.

Meanwhile, three alternate versions of Illinois’ epic centerpiece “Chicago” compete for the listener’s affection: there is the straightforward “Chicago (Acoustic Version),” the facetiously dubbed “Chicago (Adult Contemporary Easy Listening Version),” and “Chicago (Multiple Personality Disorder Version).” The first is a stripped take on the song that replaces the breathless exuberance of the final completed version with a knee-hugging, tight-cardiganed intimacy that flatters its lyrics nicely; the second features fuller and more varied instrumentation, as well as a stunning round-robin vocal section; and the third and final version is a less than successful abbreviated take that involves staccato electric guitars and burbling keyboards fitted to stilted, robotic vocals. Such is the power of the song that it can withstand even the most determined attempts on the part of its creator to invert it and distance it from its inherent emotional content.

The Avalanche is no Illinois. To be perfectly fair, there’s no way it could ever have been a true match for its forebear, as it consists wholly of orphaned songs considered unworthy for inclusion on that disc. As collections of odds and sods go, however, The Avalanche ranks with the best of them. The underlying structure that shaped Illinois is ever present on this collection as well, and even though there are repeated songs and half-finished doodles strewn about its landscape, the work hangs together admirably.

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