Two obvious facts:
1. I’m a Sufjan Stevens fan.
2. Sufjan Stevens completely rules.
Anyone familiar with his work knows that Stevens is an amazing prolific and ambitious artist, who has the stated intention of writing albums about all 50 states (Illinois and Michigan are the only ones thus far). His style is thoughtful, folkish and generally meditative, using odd harmonies, banjos and horns in compositions that are at times playful, at times heart-rending. The subject matter of his albums has varied from intensely personal stories of childhood, to issues of faith and Christianity and odd historical pieces (such as the song “Decatur” off of Illinois, which featured the immortal lines Stephen A. Douglas was the great debater/but Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator.)
Avalanche is the fanboy’s dream and the critic’s nightmare: it is billed as outtakes and deleted tracks from the Illinois album, which leads one to think that it will consist of odd tidbits that don’t fit anywhere but that Sufjan fans will eat up. Admittedly, the album lends itself to that description to a limited extent: of the album’s 21 tracks, there are about a half-dozen that are brief (>3:00) instrumental blurbs that sound like introductions or transitional clips. Also, several songs are remixes and new versions of tracks from Illinois: no less than three versions of “Chicago” are featured (each one significantly different from the rest). At the same time, some of the best pieces on the album seem unfinished, ending in odd cacophony. For example, the track “Pittsfield”, with some great harmonies and touching lyrics, ends in odd electric guitar scratches and chaos. I am not entirely sure whether this was the original artistic intent.
That said, Avalanche is far, far better than could be hoped. When it shines, it really shines, leaving the listener to wonder why some of these songs were ever left off in the first place. It re-energizes my faith in Sufjan’s ability to pull off his 50-state tour.
Also recently released is the 5-disc box set of Songs for Christmas. Some of you may be familiar with Sufjan’s Christmas discs, short sets of 5-10 Christmas traditionals with one or two new songs. He’s done one every year for the past 5 years, and this compliation brings all of them together, unedited. Also included is a songbook with chords, a Christmas portrait, and holiday stickers. It’s a very fun set and it’s packaged very well.
Any Christmas album has inherent limitations: who will want to listen to this at all come January? Fortunately the album is creative enough and heartfelt enough that its appeal is somewhat more hors-saison than, say, a Perry Como record. His versions of “O Come Emmanuel” and other traditionals are amazingly sweet to the ear. Yes, this is a Christmas set, and you’ll chiefly want to listen to it from now until Dec. 25, but if some of its songs come up on shuffle play in July you won’t tear your hair out, either.
The highlight of the set for me has to be the original Sufjan songs, which at times show some real humor about the season, and at others show the dark, moody, introspective quality of the darkest hours of the winter season. It’s a real joy.
On the radio.blog: “Pittsfield” and “Springfield, Or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair” from Avalanche, and “Jupiter Winter” and “Get Behind Me, Santa” from Songs For Christmas.