The Avalanche: Outtakes & Extras from Illinois Album
What possible better way to celebrate the birthday of the United States of America than with Sufjan Stevens, the People's Poet! The Walt Whitman for the White-Belts! The Gestaltkunstwerker with a Glockenspiel! I mean, you can pretend to be interested in the World Cup, and nurse your tenuous tie to the rest of the world, but my roman candle is aimed square at the Suf's red-white and blue puffy heart.
Its fortunate that the artist that has decided to do an album for each of the fifty states appears able to sneeze out a better melody over which a lesser poet might labor. In The Avalanche, we have an assembly of outtakes and alternative versions of "Chicago" from the Illinois sessions. Having been burned by countless lackluster blues and jazz dustbins before, my first reaction was no NO. You have 48 more states to go, boy. Get to it! But of course, Sufjan knows best. This 21-track opus is just as much an "album" as any, and maybe even a little more open and playful than its progenitor. My only real complaint with Illinois is that it is too ornate. You want him to kick out the jams a little, and while there is no Van Halen moment here (but I bet there will be in the California edition) he does let his hair down a little. 'Adaai Stevenson" has a "The Music Man" quality, but the jeweled butterflies that flutter around his songs are tethered by his plaintive banjo and handclaps. Ditto for the West Nile-infectious lilt of the "The Henney Buggy Band."
Honestly, though, despite his talent with an orchestration sheet, my favorite tracks from him are his slimmer pieces, the slow sad ones, like "Saul Bellow" and the real weeper on this record "Pittsfield." His songs about childhood and disappointment and survival are just too much. I get the notion that he is one of those cats that Feel Too Much, because I am occasionally one of those cats, and his slow numbers put the Jaws of Life in my shy shivering heart like nobody. None of them are quite the wrecking ball that is "Romulus" off his Michigan installment, but good. I don't need that kind of manipulation.
What seemed like the deal killer here - the three versions of the Illinois standout track "Chicago" - turns out to be one of its greatest assets. The acoustic version is not as Spartan as most folks "acoustic versions" but its hushed delivery raises his whisper to a geyser. The adult contemporary version is actually my favorite song on the record, managing Sigur Ros-style blur of the song, blowing up this intimate portrait into a towering landscape. The multiple personality version is interesting, reminding me of the final track off my favorite Bauhaus album The Sky's Gone Out which is essentially a pastiche/loop of elements of the rest of the record to create a Jello salad summary. The final "Chicago" pulls in everything. I can imagine the contents of his basement studio swirling around him in a fevered Poltergeist-style maelstrom of creation and re-examination.
So what's next? I've heard rumors its Florida, from which you can expect the most brilliant and appropriate song about Walt Disney ever, but I do hope he goes out on a limb and spins his carousel through the Penis of America's vibrant death metal scene, and recapitulates wit with the same feckless charm he did with the soybeans and Carl Sandburg of Illinois.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com