I have never traveled to Michigan or Illinois. And yet I’ve vividly experienced their bright, sad, and glorious semblances. Over the past three years, transported by forces more chimerical than a flying sleigh or magic carpet, Sufjan Stevens has smuggled away my music-thirsting soul to these parallel realms called Michigan and Illinois. Much like the Disney ride It’s a Small World, these two astounding albums carry their listeners through miniaturized locales, which, due to the vastness of their charms and brilliance of their colors, feel larger than life. While the subjects of the songs on these records might at first seem like mere points on a map, the lyrics actually reveal more about the human heart than titles such as “Chicago” or “The Upper Peninsula” would imply. When Stevens sings, “In strange ideas, in stranger times, I’ve no idea what’s right sometimes”, he speaks of an anomie not unique to rural Michiganders. And, in “Chicago”, Sufjan avoids a tour of landmarks, admitting, instead: “I made a lot of mistakes / In my mind, in my mind.”
That refrain returns again and again, in a Windy City song thrice reincarnated, throughout the course of the mighty Avalanche, a collection billed as “outtakes and extras from the Illinois album!” So, those of you hoping for a third installment in Sufjan Stevens’s planned project to dedicate an entire CD to each of the 50 states of the USA will have to cool your jets. Or, if you hoped this disc would be a tribute to the Denver hockey team that won the Stanley Cup in 2001, well, you’d better get cracking on composing your own puck-filled odes to Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy. But, hey, it would be fun to see Stevens and his band of Illinoisemakers perform on ice! They’re so darn cute in their cheerleading outfits. Upping the ante to animal costumes and skates would be rad. For now, we’ll have to settle for the image of Sufjan in a red cape, playing the part of a certain DC Comics superhero whose image was airbrushed off the cover of Illinois, due to copyright concerns.
Although not the Man of Steel (or is he?), Sufjan Stevens possesses powers mightier than those of most mortals. He’s already produced two of the finest records of this decade. And now he offers us a second helping of tracks recorded for Illinois, the best-reviewed album of 2005, according to the faithful compilers at metacritic.com. Now, when most artists release an odds and sods collection, the assembled tracks usually span the course of several years and a handful of albums. And the caliber of the songs is generally a bit uneven. Or, when an artist releases a special edition package with a bonus CD of extras, the material is often half-finished or of demo quality. These tracks are therefore of limited appeal to anyone other than the most hardcore and compulsive fans. The Avalanche, then, by these standards, is really quite astonishing. Were it not for the three very different, alternate versions of “Chicago” found here, the album could easily pass for another legitimate, stand-alone addition to the Sufjan Stevens discography. In fact, who am I to say that isn’t? Stevens certainly felt the material was up to snuff.
And he’s right! For nearly 76 minutes, Sufjan does what he does best: He parades, he sighs, he regales, he cheers, he reveals. He sequesters together Pete Seeger, Philip Glass, and Rand McNally in his fertile mental chamber and creates music that is uncannily triumphant. He asks “Adlai Stevenson” for “the answer”, and then, in “Carlyle Lake”, gives us one of his own: “Oh stop thinking about tomorrow / Don’t stop thinking about today.” Take that, Fleetwood Mac! I guess a Zen-like lyrical message is more appropriate today than in the Clinton era. Maybe some senatorial candidate will use those words as a slogan come mid-term elections. It is a catchy tune, despite its typically tricky beat. Is that meter in 5/4? In the horn-fueled and very Glass-esque “Dear Mr. Supercomputer”, Sufjan helps the time signature-challenged by counting out the beat for us: “1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 All computers go to heaven / if you think you got the vision, / put it to the conversation.” Stevens, you see, searches for the human heart in all his subjects, even the machines. It is this curious and wide-open spirit that pours out of his recordings, The Avalanche included.
“I was in love with a place / In my mind, in my mind.” And we, too, have come to love the Michigan and the Illinois in his mind, in his mind. Now, thanks to The Avalanche, we get twice as much of his Land of Lincoln to love, as Sufjan Stevens continues his magical tour of America, taking one more lap across the mental state of Illinois before packing up his electric piano and his tenor banjo, ready to cross yet another unsuspecting border (we hope). Although not as flat-out amazing as its parent album, this new record shows us that even Stevens’s warmed-up leftovers are more creative, engaging, sophisticated, beautiful, and simply better than what most other musical acts have to offer with their A-list material. Sufjan, you’ve done it again! The Avalanche is great.