The little secret behind the Illinois record is that it was originally conceived as a double album, culminating in a musical collage of nearly 50 songs. But as the project began to develop into an unwieldy epic, common sense weighed in as did the opinions of others and the project was cut in half. But as 2005 came to a close, Sufjan returned to the old, forsaken songs on his 8-track like a grandfather remembering his youth. Sufjan gleaned 21 useable tracks from the abandoned material, including three alternate versions of Chicago. Some songs were in finished form, others were merely outlines, gesture drawings, or musical scribbles mumbled on a hand-held tape recorder. Most of the material required substantial editing, new arrangements or vocals. Much of the work was done at the end of 2005 or in January the following year. Sufjan invited many of the original Illinoisemakers to fill in the edges: drums, trumpet, a choir of singers. The centrepiece, of course, was the title track The Avalanche a song intended for the leading role on the Illinois album but eventually cut and placed as a bonus track on the vinyl release. Often some of the most interesting material can be found in an artists sketchbook the incidental pencil marks that turn into great panoramic landscapes or simple figure drawings that allude to greater, more mysterious things. The songs on The Avalanche pry open the sketch pad of a musician who considers himself more a technician than an artist, who often regards the process of songwriting even more gratifying than the song itself.
Sufjan Stevens' plan to release an album titled after each of the 50 American States goes a little off course on The Avalanche
, although it should be noted that this is a collection of outtakes from Stevens' 2005 album, Illinois
. Clocking in at an impressive 21 tracks, it's clear this Michigan-born Christian folk-rocker doesn't lack the inspiration to tackle such an ambitious task. Part psychedelic bluegrass, part extra-terrestrial electronic ambience, and part tribal percussion-fest, The Avalanche
is every bit as piecemeal and confusing as you'd expect from an outtakes disc. A couple of enjoyable electronic numbers (see: 'Dear Mir Supercomputer') prove Stevens is working on another dimension from more traditional folkies like Devendra Banhart or Joanna Newsom, but what's really startling here is how so many excellent, lyrical songs have been carried over for this disc: the elegant, minor-key 'Springfield, Or Bobby Got A Gadfly Caught In Hair', or the serene, acid-folk vision laid out on the title track. Meanwhile, fans of Illinois
should be delighted by three mischievous alternate versions of 'Chicago' - a acoustic version, a syrupy, Coldplay-style version titled 'Adult Contemporary Easy Listening Version', and the electronic-tinged 'Multiple Personality Disorder Version'. --Louis Pattison