Sufjan Stevens, The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album!
Sufjan Stevens just doesn’t do that much for me. There, I said it, so now I can breathe a bit easier. I feel bizarre even thinking it, to be honest, since it seems like the general consensus in Ye Magical Land of Independente Musick is that the guy’s a freakin’ genius and a musical visionary. Which he may be, admittedly, but going by his latest offering, The Avalanche, I’m definitely not seein’ those visions myself. I’ve listened to this CD a good dozen times by now, and God help me, I just can’t bring myself to envelop Mr. Stevens in the cloak of adulation he seems to wear pretty much permanently these days.
Of course, part of the problem is that The Avalanche itself is an album’s worth of “outtakes and extras” from the critically-acclaimed Illinoise disc; any time you’re dealing with outtakes, odds are that there’s a reason the songs were dropped off the original album, right? Still, though, we’re told that the genius of Stevens is such that even his tossed-off crap is pure gold. Or is it? I hate to say it, but the overall feel of Avalanche is of an album’s worth of tacked-on filler, thrown on top of a project that seems to be mostly filler to begin with.
I think my real problem with Stevens is with this “every state gets an album!” project itself, now that I’m doing some deep thinking about it. When I first read about it, my OCD-afflicted geek self was torn — about half of me thought “hot damn, that sounds cool!,” while the other about-half thought “why bother?” Is it really possible to write 50 albums, one for each of the states, and keep ‘em all smart, literate, and pretty (I’ll get to “good” in a minute) without regurgitating the same stale crap over and over again? Maybe. I’ll concede that it’s at least doable, and maybe Stevens is the guy to do it. But why? Who benefits? The listener? Nope — because even if you can keep the songs smart, literate, and pretty, as all of Stevens’s songs seem to be, there’s no way in hell you’re going to be able to make them all good. It’s just not possible. I don’t care if you’re John Lennon, Bob Dylan, or Stevie Wonder; nobody’s that good a songwriter.
In the end, the benefit to you and me, the listeners, is about the same as what we’d get if we sat and watched that crazy Japanese kid eat 53 hot dogs. You watch, you think “holy crap, that’s amazing!,” and then you get up and walk away. There’s nothing lasting about it, not in the least. Like any stunt pulled for the benefit of the Guinness Book of World Records people, it’s, well, a stunt. It’s a trick. And while a trick can still have value, it’s true, that doesn’t mean that it’s guaranteed or even inherently possible. My little brother can burp the alphabet, and while it was hysterically funny when we were kids, it’s probably a good thing he didn’t try to pass it off as “art.” It takes talent, sure, but at the end of the day, it’s still just a trick, and that means it’s transitory.
Which makes me somewhat sad for Stevens, because I think he’s screwed himself on this one. He publicly promised to deliver all these freakin’ albums, so now what can he do? At some point I think he’s going to have to shrug and say, “actually, folks, it’s not happening; sorry about that, but my ambition got the better of me.” Somewhere between here and State-Specific Album #42, he’s going to have to cut his losses and admit that it was a publicity stunt, and I have a feeling it’s going to hurt when that happens. People like to see their heroes win, to be sure, but they also seem to enjoy the hell out of kicking them when they fall.
What makes it doubly sad is that the guy does have talent — when he wants to, he goes far beyond my little brother’s childhood antics. Take “Chicago,” for instance, which shows up three different times on The Avalanche, in “acoustic,” “adult contemporary easy listening,” and “Multiple Personality Disorder” versions. You’d think that loading down one CD with three versions of the same song, none of which are all that different from one another (although I have to admit that the electronicized “MPD” version’s my personal favorite, mostly because Rosie Thomas is on it), would quickly become fucking annoying, right? In most cases, yes. Here, though, the song actually stands up under the weight of the repetition, and that’s no mean feat. Try listening to some of your favorite songs three or four times in a row and still feeling like they’re interesting and exciting; odds are that some of ‘em, at least, won’t be. That’s how you can tell a good song from an out-and-out brilliant song, because the latter still manage to sound fresh and engaging after repeated listens.
Beyond that track, there are some other standouts. “Adlai Stevenson” gets me, with its bizarro quirky-marching-band-at-a-political-rally feel, “Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in his Hair” is a darn decent piece of shambling blues-folk, a story-song that’s a little like Springsteen’s quieter moments, and “No Man’s Land” pulls off the sing-song-y chant of its chorus nicely and is catchy as all hell. I also really dig the electrified parts of “The Perpetual Self, or ‘What Would Saul Alinsky Do?,” and “Pittsfield” is sweet and poignant in its remembrance of the history of a home. Unfortunately, the really good tracks tend to get drowned in the sameness of the whacked-out indie-pop orchestra tracks (the title track, “The Henney Buggy Band,” “Inaugural Pop Music for Jane Margaret Byrne,” etc.) or the pointlessness of throwaway instrumentals like “The Vivian Girls Are Visited in the Night by Saint Dargarius and his Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies” (which is, by the way, I title I hope to never have to type again), “Kaskasia River,” or “The Undivided Self (for Eppie and Popo).”
Trim all the fat away, and there are probably a half-dozen songs out of of Avalanche‘s 21 that deserved to be picked up off the cutting-room floor. And unfortunately, that’s the risk you run when you take on a project as grandiose as this. I only wish Stevens would realize the corner he’s painting himself into and break out while he can — do some serious editing and give me an EP of only the good stuff here, and I’d be happy as a clam. Offer up 48 more discs of obscure pop-folk about local personages and childhood memories, however, and I’ll leave ‘em sitting in the rack the next time I stop by the music store.