Sufjan Stevens: The Avalanche (Asthmatic Kitty, 2006)

by Jason

Sufjan AvalancheNaysayers! Rejoice! Sufjan Stevens has built a mountain of music and The Avalanche is finally ready to pour from your speakers. Yes, twenty-one tracks to wow you! Outtakes from his prolific and ever legendary Come on Feel the Illinoise album, Stevens spins more tales about that great state and brings to the table great tracks once again. To say that Stevens is prolific is an understatement. I mean, if this is the stuff that has hit the cutting room floor in terms of the proper album, he makes great outtakes. It’s as if Illinois’ long lost sibling finally has been found and all the world gets the opportunity to rejoice in the hearing.

“The Avalanche” begins the torrent of tracks right from the start. Beginning with his signature banjo and acoustic guitar Stevens’ crafts a beautiful song that showcases his pensive, honest voice. For me, his voice is just, well, trustworthy. He sounds like someone who tells a story and will just not lie. His stories pull you in and place you in a warm seat, ready to hear what he has to say. This first track is something of an anthem, gathering the hearers for more tales to come. “Dear Me, Supercomputer” begins with a ruckus of fast pace temp, fuzz, and horns, among other things. This turns into Stevens’ signature cascading sound. It seems that a bit of cynicism has crept into Stevens’ studio and he reflects on machine and man and what that means for their relation to God. It’s an interestingly vague song that, at the same time, seems compelling and powerful. “Aslai Stevenson” begins with horns like the sounds of a fourth of July celebration, complete with snare. This calms down and Stevens‘ begins to lull us into his story world. This song about one of the founders of the United Nations is telling and questions Stevenson’s current (yes, he is dead) current knowledge of the UN scandals and if he knows anything. It is apropos for current events, that’s for sure.

“The Vivian Girls are Visited in the Night by Saint Dargarius and his Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies” is a throwback to the days of Enjoy Your Rabbit. Sparkling guitars dance among warbling sounds and what sounds like keys. Brief in its length, it acts as a wonderful interlude, bringing some more of Stevens’ wonderful abstract work back to the listener. This flows into Chicago, the acoustic version. Slowed down and personal, this song is just beautiful in this form. “The Henney Buggy Band” is a story of travels and moving about, perhaps to set up a home in Illinois. Stevens sings of a figure he calls “Father John.” It is rather unclear as to who this is, at least to me, but it seems that this figure can’t tell right from wrong. “Saul Bellow” is a slow tempo tune with banjo as the primary instrument. The content of the song centers on those in need and those who are “in solid walls with the know-it-alls.” An anthem that should make all of us who are comfortable and fed think much more about those we could be helping.

“Carlyle Lake” begins with fantastic percussion and melds into banjo with a low drone underneath and some eastern flavored woodwinds. Perhaps Stevens is reminiscing about his times at a man-made lake in Illinois that makes him think of the past. It appears that, perhaps, something happened there, but it is unclear what. One only knows that he challenges us to think of today and stop thinking about what is to come. “Springfield, or, Bobby Got a Shad-Fly Caught in his Hair” is a great change of pace. It feels like a fuller version of a song that belongs on Seven Swans. This is probably the song on this disc that impacts me emotionally the most. The lyrics communicate a relationship between husband and wife that is not going so well. Perhaps, the relationship is just dead. Here are some of the lyrics:

If my wife took a bicycle ride
with a knife in her hand,
I saw it coming
All the shad-flies run at once,
With a trumpet or a train,
Oh I’m running from it
Wait a minute, lady
I can explain the aftershave.
Wait a minute, wait a minute,
Give a minute
Bobby got a shad fly
Caught in his hair.

Every line drips with pain and the need to get back whatever was lost here. The songs on this disc have a tendency to leave impressions or draw on the listeners experience to fill in the gaps. Powerful, yet simple, in that Sufjan Stevens kinda way.

“The Mistress Witch from McClure (or, The Mind That Knows Itself)” is a banjo song that also reminds me of Seven Swans. This personal song is also a very powerful story about a father that abandons his family in danger. It’s a sad song that evokes tears from the listener and notes the powerfulness of Stevens ability to look inside and find that which is personal. He expresses himself in such a powerful, meaningful way. “Kaskaskia River” is another throwback to Enjoy Your Rabbit. Again, a cascading interlude that is beautiful and gives the listener a bit of a break from Stevens’ emotionally impacting songs. The next track is called “Chicago (adult contemporary easy listening version). It’s funny, but I would have never put that description together for this song. It is the same tune melodically, but he uses keys and minimal drums. It’s really very beautiful. “Inaugural Pop Music for Jane Margaret Byrne” has the feel of a groovy, almost disco interlude, with tambourine, old school synths, and great percussion. The guitars fuzzes up the cracks in the song and then it fades away to the next.

“No Man’s Land” is a light and airy tune with images of youthfulness and playfulness. This playfulness, perhaps, plays into the idea that we should look up from that playfulness and pay attention to the environment around us so that we can pay attention to it and help it heal. I could be wrong, of course, but it seems that the distractions in everyday life are spoken of here as taking our attention away from what is important. The song finishes, “For this land is not yours or mine to have. This land was made for the good of itself.” “The Palm Sunday Tornado Hits Crystal Lake” begins with piano that is simple and soothing in a way. Some odd guitars come into the mix, playing off key and what seems to be randomly. Perhaps the Tornado is here, as the speakers fill with noise and the piano again begins to be left alone in its simplicity with barely a guitar in the mix.

“The Pick-up” has the feel of a dream of childhood memories that were innocent and beautiful. The song is minimalistic for Stevens, and it is flawless. Images of his sister, mother, and pick-up in which they drove are vivid and fresh. “The Perpetual Self, or “What Would Saul Alinsky Do?” is a brief composition. It is a bit chaotic in its instrumentation and seems to encourage an individual to spread his wings and give himself to those in the world. Maybe it is an ironic song about Stevens’ own work? Hmmm. “For Clyde Tombaugh” brings in the old-school synths again (they remind me here a bit of the sounds of Styx). The instrumental bubbles with spacey sounds and modulated tones. This is followed by another version of “Chicago” called “Multiple Personality Disorder version.” This is a great take on the song, as are the previous. Although it is repeated over and over again throughout the disc, it never gets boring. Each interpretation is fresh and completely interesting. “Pittsburgh” almost brings this album to a close and is a simple, singer-songwriter tune. It demonstrates a young persons ability to learn to be rebellious or fight back against parents who are abusive. This is a kind of sad song, since no child should have to do such a thing. The song is just powerful and moving. Last, but not least, “The Undivided Self (for Eppie and Popo)” begins with sounds like a child’s music box and then some spacey keys fill the speakers. Ocean sounds wisp through the speakers and eventually fades to end the album.

Ok, so, what can I say? Another brilliant outing and I’m not just saying that! Stevens hits the mark again with his great story-telling and quirky style. I can’t wait to see what state he treats next!

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