If Illinois is the first time you meet your significant other—with the butterflies and magic and sweaty palms—then Avalanche is a month later, hanging out at their place when you begin to notice the idiosyncrasies in their personality—the quirks and less polished moments. Although not as glamorous, this is the time you move on beyond the initial attraction and develop a keenness and understanding and appreciation for whom they truly are.
So if you felt Illinois was a bit much for your musical pallet on your first introduction, then Avalanche might take the friendship to a more awkward place.
Avalanche contains a mass volume of 75 minutes and 55 seconds spread out in 21 songs Sufjan Stevens deemed unsuitable for Illinois.
With such a large amount of music from B sides, outtakes and reinterpretations of Illinois, Avalanche might come off a bit gratuitous, assuming or pretentious, but indie rock’s favorite son isn’t miserly milking his previous success; most of these songs hold their own and warrant such a release and a title as mighty as Avalanche.
This is more than merely a collection of B sides and alternative versions. Well, technically it is just a collection of B sides and alternative versions, but not in comparison to the standard This album became hugely successful so let’s release every other recording that might have anything to do with it and shoot for platinum! idea.
If Avalanche is the chaff among the wheat, then this release might serve as hard evidence that Sufjan cannot write a bad song. Maybe that last statement was a bit out of line—I’ll say this: Avalanche is phenomenal for what it is. But it is apparent why these songs where left off of Illinois. For every great moment on Avalanche there is an even greater one on Illinois.
Honestly this album is best heard out of earshot and recent memory of Illinois. Although much of Avalanche was recorded and touched up after Illinois had been released, there is little evidence of any growth or maturation in Sufjan’s songwriting; but should that really be expected?
One could read into the several alternative versions of the song “Chicago” (my personal favorite being “Multiple Personality Disorder Version”) and assume that Sufjan is attempting to mildly prepare his audience for “something different,” but that might be a stretch. With a softer attitude and a few zoning instrumentals, none of the compositions on Avalanche compare to the epic bombastness or audacious concepts brewing on Illinois, but that’s most likely why they aren’t on Illinois.
Received on it’s own, Avalanche is a better record than most alternative/indie/folk records being released. “Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Stuck in his Hair,” “The Mistress Witch From Mclure or, (The Mind That Knows Itself),” “The Perpetual Self or ‘What Would Saul Alinsky Do?’” and “Pittsfield” (especially) all standout as embodying Sufjan’s gentle narrative style that complement the music complementing the lyrics.
But most notably Sufjan once again succeeds in stifling that small persistent voice in the back of my head that so convincingly tells me “You can write good songs too. Maybe one day quit your job and just make music. What do you say?” In Sufjan’s defense, his contribution in the musical world is worth the death of my ill-advised dreams … sniff.