Sufjan Stevens has been too kind to us. It’s one thing to have given us both Michigan and Illinois, each 70-plus minute epics in geography and orchestral pop. And it’s another to have given away those free Michigan outtake mp3s. Hell, that brief ditty about the bird he did for NPR was nifty too. But to think that there was an entire album’s worth of material cut from Illinois, compiled and titled The Avalanche, now this is just too much.
Much like Prince, who reportedly wrote more than 100 songs for Purple Rain, Stevens has a knack for prolificacy. Adding the number of tracks on The Avalanche to the number of tracks that made it to Illinois, you end up with 43 tracks. And I would venture to guess that there may even be more where that came from, songs that may not have been considered fit for release. In any case, there’s at least one, an alternate version of “Adlai Stevenson,” which wound up on this year’s The Sound The Hare Heard compilation. And though I may be starting off on the wrong foot her by saying it, I actually prefer that version to the marching band version on The Avalanche.
That said, much of the material on The Avalanche actually lives up to the quality of most of Illinois. The three different variant versions of “Chicago” each satisfy in their own right, the acoustic version being the best of the bunch for its emotional bareness. Yet, the “easy listening” version and the “multiple personality disorder” version each offer their own share of character, though the original version is hard to top. Stylistically, the album doesn’t stray far from the well-worn path of Treble’s No. 2 album of 2005 (my number one, I guess not everyone got the memo). And honestly, it shouldn’t—these were written and recorded at the same time as all of those other songs. And there’s nothing here quite as emotionally affecting as “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” or “Casimir Pulaski Day,” but Illinois set an impossibly high standard, and this isn’t even really meant to be an album so much as a collection of outtakes, as the cover states, “shamelessly compiled by Sufjan Stevens.”
So, imagine this as a really great Sufjan mixtape, which it kind of is. Beginning with the title track, which was supposedly the first proposed opener for Illinois, Stevens sets a quiet and beautiful tone, which gives way to the more upbeat, Stereolab-like “Dear Mr. Supercomputer.” “The Henney Buggy Band” is a personal favorite of mine, a lushly arranged, yet deceptively catchy pop celebration. It’s one of the few songs that I might even allow traded for another song on Illinois, should some brave soul attempt their own adjusted tracklisting. That brave soul won’t be me, but I digress. Hearing “get in trouble with Saul Bellow” is an amusing chorus in “Saul Bellow,” even more so because I initially thought that the lyrics were “we’re so mellow.”
I don’t know if I believe in too much of a good thing, and as such, I feel grateful that Stevens was generous enough to bestow upon us the remainder of his recording sessions for Illinois. It’s not a proper album, that appears to be in the works as Stevens recently announced he has picked his next state, but it has quite a few outstanding songs and an endless supply of gorgeous. But with such an overwhelming talent as Sufjan, it’s probably wise not to go less than a year before releasing something else.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.