If I were you, I wouldn’t get too comfortable with the lull in hype surrounding everyone’s new favorite folk-pop act, Sufjan Stevens; with The Avalance, things are sure to heat up again, as opinions will once again be split on the Detroit native’s new album, reminiscent of a year ago when the spectacular Illinois dropped to some criticisms, mainly surrounding the length of the album (which goes hand in hand with the numerous interludes) and the fact that some people just found the man and his music to be flat-out boring. Don’t expect the conversations to waver much this time around: The Avalanche is the B-sides record to Illinois, and could very well be labeled as “more of the same” with the added stigma of “not as good as the original” which comes with the B-sides label. Even to the trained ear, the new album isn’t too much of a departure from its predecessor -- in fact, the two were originally supposed to be packaged together as a double album. If you liked Illinois, there’s no reason you shouldn’t like The Avalanche.
Stevens’ new release picks up where his last one left off, boasting folky tunes with an accessible, pop sensibility without sounding too watered down. In fact, a lot of the songs found here (and on the previous record) are rather dense, with a whirlwind of instrumentation taking place as acoustic guitars, banjos, drums, and numerous brass instruments create memorable songs unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. The subtle differences between The Avalanche and Illinois lie in two types of songs: ones where the horns take center stage (moreso than on previous efforts) and drive the song home, and ones where Sufjan and his guitar are featured prominently, creating a sad and almost lonely atmosphere. Tracks like “Adlai Stevenson” and “The Henney Buggy Band” are led by huge trumpet and trombone pieces, some of which are too strange even for the eccentric Illinois (it will take you a few listens to get a firm grasp on all that’s happening in “Adlai Stevenson”). “Dear Mr. Supercomputer” is interesting due to the fact that some parts of the song actually do sound like a computer processing commands and doing whatever else computers can do these days. On the other hand, songs like ”The Pick Up” and “Saul Bellows” do not fare nearly as well as they serve as the counterpart to Illinois' “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” only with less emotion and more drone, ultimately leaving these tracks skippable.
The Avalanche is also much more to the point than its predecessor: Tracks will rarely exceed five minutes in length, which contributes even further still to the feeling that this album is most certainly the “B-sides” record in every sense of the term. While this prevents the songs from dragging, it also limits their growth. “The Mistress Witch from McClure (Or, the Mind That Knows Itself),” the album’s best song, could have been something even greater than it already is (Sufjan himself has said that this would be the only song from the album that he would play live), and the dark “Springfield or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair” would sound great as an eight-minute epic with a little buildup. However, I can’t fault Sufjan for the “could have beens,” as these songs are excellent in their current forms. The three versions of “Chicago” are interesting and fun for a few listens (the “Multiple Personality Disorder Version” being the most intriguing), but they too grow stale after a while, as it proves to be a little too much. Buried towards the end is the emotional “Pittsfield” with its autobiographical nature, and the climax of the tune is fantastic and would have been a perfect way to end the album; it is instead followed by one of Sufjan’s noisy interludes, serving as a rather anticlimactic closer.
I apologize in advance for the constant references to Illinois, but I suppose it’s inevitable; the two go hand in hand and both have relatively the same sound. However, as traditional as B-side records are, The Avalanche is indeed a step down from the original, albeit not a very large one. It’s a solid album with some great songs, and you should listen to it as that, nothing more. It’s not as coherent, moving, and out-and-out fantastic as Illinois, but it gets the job done. If you can’t get enough of Sufjan Stevens, then listen to this album.