Suf-tastic Album Review: Avalanche and Songs For Christmas by Sufjan Stevens

IMG_1764.jpgTwo 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.)

sufjan_avalanche.jpgAvalanche 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.

23156.21231.x-news-sufjanstevenssongsforxmas.jpgAlso 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.

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19 thoughts on “Suf-tastic Album Review: Avalanche and Songs For Christmas by Sufjan Stevens

  1. One thing I should have noted: Avalanche also sees Sufjan go off in slightly different directions. The “Springfield” track on the radio.blog is an example — there is a distinctive country twang to the song.

  2. I’m a little frustrated by artists who aren’t very good at editing themselves. Yeah, no one is going to force me to listen to “Avalanche.” I realize that. But personally, as much as I liked “Come on Feel the Illinois,” it could have lived with a bit of trimming.

    Of course, this is coming from someone who thinks the White Album could have made a fantastic single LP, so take that for what it’s worth.

    On the other hand, I absolutely love Sufjan’s Christmas music. For me, it strikes the perfect balance between musicianship, reverence and humor. Last year’s version was some of the only holiday music I listened to from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

  3. BTD Greg, I agree that discretion in publishing one’s work is worthwhile. Avalanche is self-described extra tracks, though, so I don’t know how worked up we can be about the editing.

  4. How will his Christmas music stand up over time? I love Christmas music, but very little seems to have the staying power of a Bing Crosby or Ella Fitzgerald. I admit that I don’t want to hear Bing come June, and I liked “Get Thee Behind Me, Santa,” but is this something I want for my Christmas collection? (I do want to want it.)

  5. I feel the same way about Illinois as BTD Greg. I start getting worn out about 45 minutes in. That said, I think it’s cool to release outtakes as long as they’re labeled as such. As a follow-up I’m sure Avalanche would get panned, but as a collection of odds and ends, I’m sure it’s fine. I’m not falling over myself to get it, though. I would like to hear some “Chicago” variations.

    I would love to see Sufjan go in some new directions. In an interview somewhere this past year he seemed to indicate that he’s getting tired of the Michigan/Illinois sound. I wouldn’t say I’m tired of it, but it’d be cool to see what else he can do. There are hints of a kickass guitar rock album within Illinois.

  6. Tom, on Avalanche and on the Christmas album every once in a while the electric guitars start to come out. I think there is definitely some rocker starting to come out.

    Sam B., those albums you cite had ENORMOUS mass appeal and marketing. Basically everyone in America had a Bing Crosby album at some point. G.E. sold them. I don’t think Sufjan will ever be that big. Now, on a musical basis, I think he holds his own. But as a cultural phenomenon? That’s an unfair basis for comparison IMHO.

  7. Is this something I want for my Christmas collection?

    Well, I got a version last year with something like 30 tracks or so and I can’t wait for Thanksgiving so I can start listening to it again (I have a personal/household rule against Christmas music of any kind from Dec. 26 to Thanksgiving of the next year).

  8. Supergenius,
    The fact that it’s so cheap helps–and I’m not worried about it being sold on the level of Bing Crosby. But I can still listen to Bing and it still sounds good; Ella’s Christmas album is still excellent.

    It’s not even necessarily the song choice: “Santa Baby,” sung by Earthea Kitt in like ’56, is still a remarkable song; that same song, done by Madonna in the 90s, now feels out of date.

    Basically, will his Christmas songs still sound good in 5 or 10 or more years, or are they so in the moment that they’re only good now (I can’t tell from Get Thee Behind Me, Santa)?

  9. Thanks for the review, SG. It will be interesting to see Sufjan’s next move, now that all eyes are on him.

  10. I think many of these songs will hold up. The instrumentation is pretty acoustic and folky most of the time (lots of banjo), so it’s not like the sound is going to get old (it kind of already is old, in a classic/old kind of way, not a tired/old kind of way). “O Come O Come Emmanuel” is absolutely gorgeous. I’m sure some of his original songs you may find disposable, but his versions of a few old, hymn-like songs are my all-time favorite versions.

  11. By my count there are ten tracks that actually are in the LDS hymn book and a few more that I would expect to be found in other hymn books.

  12. Thanks for this, SG. These days I only learn about new music from two sources: (1) Austin City Limits and (2) KB.

    I was completely ignorant of Sufjan S. until his appearance on ACL a few weeks back. My first impression: “who is this dufus with the enormous orchestra (all wearing cheesy bird or butterfly wings) singing about Detroit?” But I couldn’t get the sound or the lyrics out of my head. I watched the ACL set again (too short at four songs) and I really liked it. It’s pop, but the sound made me think of Samuel Barber (my favorite American composer) and the lyrics made me think of Whitman. I’m not saying I think Sufjan S. really deserves to be compared to either, but I was excited to discover pop sufficiently ambitious to even raise the question.

    Anyway, now that KB has featured Sufjan S., I feel that the universe is trying to tell me something.

  13. I saw that performance, too, S.P. (First time I ever watched Austin City Limits.) There’s also an interview with Sufjan on the website that relates to Tom’s comment (#6) about new directions – at the end he says he wants to write music that is more symphonic, pieces for ensembles.

    After I saw that ACL, I went out and bought Illinois. I remember Superg. reviewed that album about a year and a half ago here on Kulturblog, and Sufjan Stevens was on tour about the same time, but I missed the show (which I now really regret!) and never really looked into the music. Since I bought the CD, though, I’ve been listening to it all the time.

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