Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche: Outtakes And Extras From The Illinois Album

Mike Mantin 20/07/2006

Rating: 4/5

It seems rather odd that, in the three years since Sufjan Stevens announced his ambitious, time-consuming plan to release an album for each of the 50 US states, he has also made a separate album of Christian folk songs and this, an outtakes collection for last year's classic 'Illinois'. That said, any Sufjan Stevens album is always welcomed by critics and fans because he has mastered both the intimate strum and the grand, orchestral epic. Being an outtakes collection, 'The Avalanche' doesn't quite have the scope that Stevens mastered on 'Illinois', but hardly any other albums released that year did anyway. Don't be fooled by the possiblity of this being an album of rejected cuts: most of the songs here sound fully-formed and demonstrate Stevens' considerable songwriting talents: his outtakes are far better than most singer-songwriters' in-takes.

'The Avalanche' contains a number of classic Sufjan songs which would have fit in nicely with the memorable moments on 'Illinois'. The brass-assisted 'Adlai Stevenson', deeply personal 'The Mistress Witch From McClure' and truly beautiful 'No Man's Land' all stand up strong even in Stevens' sizeable back catalogue of brilliant songs. 'The Avalanche' naturally throws in a bit of filler (which is expected for an outtakes collection), though the ten-second interludes present on 'Illinois' are gone. A number of songs pass through without making much impact, very disappointing for such a striking singer and performer. 'Carlyle Lake''s chorus of "don't stop thinking of tomorrow" is a little to close to Fleetwood Mac for comfort, and 'Pluto' is bizarrely unlistenable. And did we really need three versions of 'Chicago'? The only one really deserved of a place here is the superb "multiple personality disorder version", which adds electronic noises and jerky guitar to the 'Illinois' favourite. At a lengthy 21 songs, it is clear Stevens struggles with song selection and his weak point remains that, like almost all of his albums, the album trails towards the end. iTunes playlisters will no doubt be taking the best tracks from this and 'Illinois' and making an all-time classic album.

As if 'Illinois' wasn't surprising enough, 'The Avalanche' acts as a little testing ground for new ideas and styles, which have a high success rate. 'Kaskaskia River' is a sweet instrumental that is almost post-rock in its grace and textures, while at the other end 'Dear Mr Supercomputer' sees him throw brass and bleeps into the mix to create one of his biggest-sounding songs yet. It's fascinating to listen to, the equivalent of watching your favourite sports star train up. Yet even this song contains those trademark Sufjan elements we know and love, like his distinctive, high vocals and the angelic backing singers that characterised 'Illinois'.

Viewed as an outtakes album, 'The Avalanche' is truly outstanding: most of these songs are both srawling and engaging, with no loss of both lyrical and musical flair. Despite the odd bit of filler (what did you expect? It's an outtakes collection!), these tracks really do confirm Stevens as one of the best, if not the best, singer-songwriters around today, demonstrating there really is beauty behind the miserable mainstream scene of James Blunt and Jack Johnson, who surely wish they could write a song and affecting and interesting as the ones here. If these are the rejects, it only makes me even more excited to hear the next installment of Stevens' trek around the USA. He'd better hurry up though, or he won't get to Rhode Island 'til he's 100.