Album Review: Sufjan Stevens, “The Avalanche: Outtakes & Extras from the Illinois Album” (2006)

There’s no denying or hiding my love for Sufjan Stevens. The folk singer/songwriter has been a favourite of mine for several years now, to the point that I own all of his albums, EPs, and even hundreds of his live tracks. I’ll literally buy anything he releases, so it’s no wonder I have copy of The Avalanche: Outtakes & Extras from the Illinois Album.

Come On! Feel The Illinoise is perhaps Stevens’ magnum opus; the 2005 album surrounding the places, events and people related to the state of Illinois was hailed as a musical masterpiece. Despite that, initially, the idea of a full-length album just of outtakes and extras seemed a bit excessive and maybe even a bit boring to me. However, it’s Stevens we’re talking about here, so even the “b-sides” are pretty excellent.

The album begins with a mellow acoustic guitar number, The Avalanche. Stevens’ falsetto is beautiful in the opening verses, but it’s really the choruses with his backing vocalists and the plethora of instruments (including the glockenspiel and tambourine) that really make the song. The cheeriness of Adlai Stevenson (named after the former governor of Illinois) is a big part of its appeal; again, Stevens has emptied out his cabinet of instruments and put them all into this one song- there are bells, horns, tambourines and flutes. The result is a bouncy, upbeat song that’s less about the actual man and more about the flurry of instruments.

The Henney Buggy Band is another delight; I am in love with the horn that trumpets throughout the song, but more than that, I love the refrain: “Forget about yourself and all your plans.” There’s something so incredibly attractive about this song- the chorus, the horns, Stevens’ sweet vocals…all of it makes the track one of my favourites on the album. Saul Bellow follows (this time named after the writer whom lived in Chicago), and the down tempo number is another favourite of mine. The track is composed of mainly banjo and flute, but Stevens’ vocal delivery is the true draw here: his falsetto is perfect, particularly during the plaintive chorus (“Get in solid walls/With the know-it-alls/Get in trouble with Saul Bellow”).

Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair has a sort of classic rock feel to it, with the acoustic guitar and drums that play in the background. There’s a jarring electric guitar solo towards the middle of the song, which sounds a bit out of place in a track that has thus far been acoustic, but also calls to mind some of Stevens’ recent work. The track is a nice one to listen to, but is ultimately a bit too long and forgettable, and serves as a reminder that this is an album of outtakes, after all.

Of course, an album of outtakes from the Illinois album wouldn’t be complete without a few new versions of the album’s hit song, “Chicago”. The Acoustic Version sounds like a milder update to the original, while the Adult Contemporary Easy version sounds pretty similar to the original, though the music is slowed down and quieted a bit. The best of the new versions is the Multiple Personality Disorderversion, which, as its title suggests, is a bit all over the place. The music is sped up a bit, there’s electric guitar, synthesizers, loud percussion and hand claps, and it generally sounds like something you might’ve heard on Stevens’ “experimental” Age of Adz album. That being said, however, if you’re looking for the most interesting version of Chicago, the Multiple Personality Disorder version is the winner.

Sufjan Stevens crop

The majority of the songs on the album are lovely to listen to but don’t really do much for me. The combination of Stevens’ hushed vocals and banjo is always something I enjoy, but there isn’t much variety, and the album tends to run together a bit. Again, you must keep in mind that these are b-sides and outtakes; songs never truly attended to see the light of day, songs where Stevens could’ve just been messing around in the studio, trying out new ideas. This is the perfect album for a die-hard fan like myself, but most people will find themselves skipping through a handful of the tracks.

The last truly great song on the album is the second to last track, Pittsfield. I overlooked the song several times on the first few listens, disregarding it because of the same banjo/quiet vocal formula that had become tedious at this point in the disc. However, one afternoon on the way home from work, I really listened to the song and fell in love with it because of the lyrics. Stevens’ quietly recalls a parent/child relationship and the emotion and depth put into the lyrics instantly struck a chord with me (“I’m not afraid of you now/I know so I climb down from the bunk bed this slow/I can talk back to you now/I know from a few things that I learned from this TV show/You can work late til midnight; we don’t care/We can fix our own meals, we can wash our own hair…/Stand there, tell me that I’m of no use/Things unspoken break us if we choose”). Musically, I’ll admit that the song doesn’t differ much from the others on the album, but Stevens’ vulnerable, emotional delivery (he hits a lovely high note in a key point of the song) and the lyrics are worth repeated listens, making this song easily one of the best on the album.

The Avalanche: Outtakes & Extras isn’t really for a newcomer to Sufjan Stevens‘ music: this isn’t a cohesive album and these songs aren’t his best in terms of writing or composition. There are more exciting, imaginative tracks on any of his LPs, but this collection of outtakes is still worth listening to, particularly if you’re already a fan and just looking to add something new to your Sufjan Stevens collection.

Rating: 200px-4_stars.svg

Track List
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. Korsakia 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)

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