Review: The Avalanche by Sufjan Stevens

Having listened to this album 10 times now, I feel that it should not be viewed as a collection of “Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois album” as the album’s subtitle indicates. Viewing the album in this way prevents the listener from enjoying it as a cohesive whole, reducing it to just a random collection of songs. While the album does contain three different versions of Chicago that prevent it from feeling fully like a “normal” album, the album consists mostly of new, unduplicated material. Furthermore, this material makes sense as a cohesive whole, since it was originally conceived to belong to a larger cohesive whole: namely, a double album incarnation of Illinois. Though not all tracks are sensational, the album contains, in my estimation, at least half a dozen gems, showcasing Stevens’ gifted sense of rhythm and orchestration, his lyrical skill and his hopeful melancholia.

What struck me most in reflecting on this album and its predecessor, Illinois, is a sense of patriotism that comes through in the music. This is not the “America, right or wrong” brand of patriotism; rather, it is a patriotism that celebrates who we are, where we have come from, and the struggles we have endured. It celebrates our victories and grieves over our failures, but doesn’t sweep them under the rug. This brand of humble patriotism can acknowledge our weaknesses and admit that they are part of who we are. The stories Stevens tells touch us because they resonate with our own experiences.

I was talking to a friend from Harvard the other day and he mentioned that when he finishes at Harvard, he would like to move to a place that is more patriotic. In Boston and Cambridge – especially at the universities – a sort of anti-patriotism seems to reign. Rather than “America, right or wrong”, the sentiment is “America: wrong”. So, coming from this environment, I find Sufjan Stevens’ music and its celebration of small-town America so refreshing. He invites us to join him in forsaking contentious debates over governmental policy (that is, the governing of America) and focus on that which is being governed: a nation of ordinary folks with stories to tell.

Track Summary:

Repeated Tracks:

  • Chicago (3 versions) (appears on Illinois)
  • Adlai Stevenson (A different version appears on The Sound the Hare Heard, a compilation from Kill Rock Stars Records)

Instrumental Tracks:

  • The Vivian Girls Are Visited In the Night by Saint Dargarius
  • Kaskaskia River
  • Inaugural Pop Music for Jane Margaret Byrne
  • The Palm Sunday Tornado Hits Crystal Lake
  • For Clyde Tombaugh
  • The Undivided Self (for Eppie and Popo)

My Favorites:

  • The Avalanche
  • Adlai Stevenson
  • The Henney Buggy Band
  • Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair
  • The Mistress Witch from McClure (or, the Mind That Knows Itself)
  • No Man’s Land

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July 2006

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