Why am I not surprised? If an artist plans a double album of close to fifty songs, then slices the thing down to a single-disc masterpiece, most of those “lost” songs probably weren’t all that spectacular, and the music-loving population isn’t at too much of a loss by not ever hearing the trimmed fat.
But leave it up to Mr. Productive, Sufjan Stevens, to “shamelessly compile” those scrapped extras and outtakes into a twenty-one-track, seventy-five-minute extension of his catalog of music inspired by the state of Illinois.
Don’t get me wrong: Stevens can write a damn fine song. No one (aside from Cynical Charlie, the bastard!) is disputing this. But there’s a difference between a damn fine song and the brilliance that made up Stevens’s previous two releases, Illinois and Seven Swans. Unfortunately, The Avalanche clunks through track after track of damn fine songs while only rarely hitting these moments that make your body tingle in euphoria, like the first time you heard the spookily hushed “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” or the cyclical “In the Devil’s Territory.” See, you’re getting shivers just thinking about them.
So let’s cut a deal: I’m going to ax out the bullshit, gloss over the three sub-par alternate versions of “Chicago,” and drop some knowledge about the album’s choice moments, and you don’t tell my grandparents that I stole their copy of The Office on DVD. Okay?
· “Springfield”: A somber ballad highlighted by some spazzoid guitar wielding and Stevens’s captivating vocal phrasing. Easily should have made the cut on Illinois.
· “Dear Mr. Supercomputer”: Above a semi-electro pulse and celebratory horn blasts, Stevens dons his best Thom Yorke mask as he tackles themes of technological alienation, name-checks the “man machine” and gives a shout-out to Abe Lincoln.
· “The Avalanche”: Originally intended as the lead-off track for Illinois, this whoop of flutes could battle the dramatically withholding “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” (the album’s actual opener) to the death, provided we’re talking about Jello wrestling and not cage fighting (which we are).
· “Pittsfield”: A duet with Rosie Thomas on which Stevens channels the comforting voice of whoever makes you feel like everything will be okay.
· “Saul Bellow”: Fantastic only because it’s hilarious to hear Saul Bellow’s name sung in choral harmonies.
Prefix review: Sufjan Stevens [A Sun Came] by Mike Dougherty