Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche
Not content with setting himself the surely unachievable goal of recording an album for every US State, Sufjan Stevens is now releasing an outtake collection as a stopgap. 'The Avalanche' is by no means scraping the barrel either - at a CD busting 75 minutes, it has even more material than the original 'Illinois' album that spawned it. Admittedly, some of this is somewhat superfluous (do we really need three different versions of 'Chicago'?). For the most part though, this is a collection of previously unheard material completed at the same sessions as the 'Illinois' album. Perhaps Stevens is simply pre-empting the exploitative reissue series twenty years hence - or maybe he just has a compelling desire to release his every recorded note.
There's certainly material of real value here - and the highlights rival any of the best material on its parent album. The opening title track has that warm, familiar and endearingly delicate way with melody that is Stevens' greatest songwriting gift. It's strange too that 'Saul Bellow' was left off the original album, given that it references one of America's towering literary figures, and undoubtedly one of Chicago's 'great men'. There's more infectious breezy pop on 'The Mistress Witch From McClure', which also comes bolstered with an intelligent horn arrangement that is more subtle and less twee than usual. Most unexpected is the slightly bluesy 'Springfield, or Bobby Got A Shadfly Caught In His Hair' (the ludicrous song titles are still present and correct), which even comes with some effective dissonant guitar work.
Yet this album also leaves a lingering impression that Stevens' working methods may be beginning to obscure his talents. He certainly has a gift for arrangements - but as he piles on more and more unusual instruments, the songs occasionally get lost. There are three versions of 'Chicago' here (in addition to the completed version used on 'Illinois') - the 'acoustic' version, the 'adult contemporary easy listening version' (oh, the irony) and the 'multiple personality disorder' version. By far the best is the acoustic demo, in which Stevens pares down the instrumentation, and allows the song's wistful grace some room to breathe. The songs with the more grandiose arrangements here tend to sound more saccharine and, paradoxically given their vaunting ambition, less distinctive. Certainly, over the course of 75 minutes, the limitations of the trademark Stevens sound become more apparent - and many of the songs end up bleeding into each other.
As a lyricist, Stevens remains a uniquely eloquent chronicler of the 'little moments' of local history, as well as the broad canvas of American myth-making. He may yet evolve into the brightest American songsmith of these times - but he will need to find new contexts for his elegiac melodic tone, and resist always settling for the 'big' sound.