Crate-Digging: Sufjan Stevens – The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Asthmatic Kitty, 2006)

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when I got this album, a sprawling, 21-track collection of outtakes from arguably one of the best albums of the aughts, Come on Feel the Illinoise, itself a 22-track behemoth. Perhaps I was naïve to think that Sufjan couldn’t possibly have left anything of quality off a record that already was packed to the gills with stunning material. The B-sides had to be lacking in some way, as one man can’t possibly compose such quantity without spreading himself thin here and there. But it turns out his cutting-room floor was littered with tracks that not only could have made the cut for Illinois, but also could have made it better. Can you imagine being in a band and peering in through the basement window of Sufjan’s recording studio, hearing a song as fully formed, composed, energetic, and lasting as “Dear Mr. Supercomputer,” and then overhearing, once the playback ends: “Nope, this one doesn’t work. Let’s see what else we got.” Devastating! You’d kill for “Dear Mr. Supercomputer,” wouldn’t you?

It might have been the sheer volume of music released so closely following Illinois, but I gave The Avalanche half a listen and put it aside. I guess I was burnt out – too much of a good thing, et cetera, et cetera – and I was still spinning the parent album pretty relentlessly in 2006. I wrote about it too – back in early 2009, for my blogging trial run. I feel quite a bit differently about this record now, so I’m going to formulate the rest of this column as a counterpoint to some choice thoughts that I had originally written.

“This companion piece to [Illinois] really only highlights why certain songs hit the cutting room floor. I mean, it’s not like the songs are bad, they’re just … similar.”

Two things wrong here. I’ve come to love certain songs on this album just as much as songs from his albums proper, and I think he could even have replaced some in certain cases (I’m looking at you, “They Are Night Zombies” and “Out of Egypt”). The previously mentioned “Dear Mr. Supercomputer” is just as enlighteningly frenetic as “Come on Feel the Illinoise! Part 1”; the gentle, repentive, yet wistful “Saul Bellow” perfectly encapsulates Stevens’ skill at weaving personal and regional history in such a way that it becomes universal, just like “Casimir Pulaski Day” (although, granted, without quite the emotional depth of such a powerful song). Thing is, Sufjan works in such a singular palette, diverse as it may be, that a fully orchestrated, upbeat track like “Supercomputer” can sound similar to another without the benefit of distance, kind of like how Julian Casablancas’s voice occupies the same aural space as Iggy Pop’s – they both sound great, but you can’t get them too close together without noticing the similarities. “Supercomputer” (and I remind you that this is only an example, not a culprit), however, does not sound like another song on Illinoise; rather, the instrumentation used places the song in the listener’s mind closer in proximity than Sufjan is comfortable with to other songs featuring similar instrumentation. Thus: something’s gotta hit the cutting room floor.

“But the thing is, it’s really hard to follow something like Illinois. Even if the songs were originally intended for that album AND they were marketed as a collection of B-sides (read: not good enough/didn’t make the cut). So right there our expectations should be lowered.”

If Sufjan has done anything over the course of his career, it’s to raise the expectations of his listeners ever higher with each subsequent release, B-side album notwithstanding. (See, for example, the hubbub surrounding the release of this year’s The Age of Adz.) And the truth is, he’s got some great songs on here, like the backwoods jamboree of “Carlyle Lake.” “The Perpetual Self, Or, ‘What Would Saul Alinsky Do?’” is a fuzz-pop gem that transitions and shimmers away over its short runtime. “No Man’s Land” is another orchestral pop classic, reminding us that the sentiment of “This land is your land / this land is my land” isn’t true – it’s really God’s land. “Springfield, Or Bobby Got a Shadfly Stuck in His Hair” is an open homage to the best of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the comparison fits Sufjan well. All these stand well against, if not the best parts of Illinois, at least the really good ones.

“Even his clattering non-orchestral Seven Swans sounded fully realized and highly personal. The Avalanche, in contrast, is fully orchestrated and emotionally detached.”

Again, allow me to disagree with myself. Seven Swans was such a personal album, it’s hard to compare any of Stevens’ other works to it, especially considering how, on these other albums, he’s essentially dealing with third party subjects within historical re-imaginings, regardless of how closely he personalizes them. So sure, he’s not mining the depths of his spiritual being as he did on Seven Swans. But the remarkable humanity and American everyman execution in his storytelling is embracing and comforting by nature, regardless of how it’s packaged. Only a man of stone with a heart of steel (something like that) would consider that “emotionally detached.”

“(There are 3 reworked versions of “Chicago” from Illinois which help break up the album. What a great song…)”

I will not disagree that “Chicago” is a great song. In fact, it’s one of Sufjan’s best. But three versions is a bit much. I prefer the intimacy of the “Acoustic Version”; the “Adult Contemporary Easy Listening” and “Multiple Personality Disorder” versions are pleasant, but a bit of overkill. If I were to pare this record down to twelve or fourteen tracks, those two versions wouldn’t have made the final tracklist. Still, hard to argue with such a great song.

Speaking of breaking up the album, there are instrumental snippets throughout that are completely unnecessary, especially the longer ones like “For Clyde Tombaugh” and “The Undivided Self (For Eppie and Popo” – included only for purposes of dedication?

“So, right, more here is less. Which is fine in this case because, at the end of the day, this is a B-sides collection. But Sufjan better have some new tricks for his next album, and who’s doubting him at this point after such creative highs? (And please let it be Pennsylvania!)”

I’ve already argued for the quality of material present, B-sides collection or no, and conclude that a fourteen-song album would suffice, excluding extraneous material. That probably would have elevated the album’s status, at least to the level of an Amnesiac to Illinois’s Kid A. And of course, in the ensuing years since the release of The Avalanche, Sufjan’s scored a classical work (The BQE), denounced the album as a viable medium, referred to his 50 states album project as “such a joke” (dammit, no Pennsylvania!), snuck back onto the radar with the All Delighted People EP, and released what some are referring to as another modern masterpiece in The Age of Adz, which, of course, is a, um, traditional album. So he’s got the “new tricks” angle covered, just not quite what we expected. Keep ’em coming Suf – it’s fun not having any idea what you’re going to do next.

RIYL: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jose Gonzalez, The Polyphonic Spree

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