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Alright, I’ll admit: sometimes sitting here is just a treat. You sit down glum and then get assigned a Sufjan Stevens album to wax your nostalgia into. It sounds silly, maybe, given that this is a mere B-sides record, but there’s no record in this songwriter’s oeuvre that I’d rather listen to. It feels like his homeliest collection, and maybe that’s because it’s not an album proper: like a home, a true home, it’s all disorganised knick knacks and friendly messes, ornate paintings framed next to crude kids’ drawings. ‘Illinois’ is the opus, I’ll give you that: but ‘the Avalanche’ is where I go to spend a weekend.
It’s home to a whole car boot sale of my favourite Sufjan songs, all dropped off like memories he’s fond of, but just as happy to let go. They speak to the pastoral highway hymn Sufjan had mastered at this time: just outta the city you’ll find tunes like “Saul Bellow”, one of his quietest banjo ruminations, made beautiful only by a low-key melody and a fluttering woodwind section. The chiming keys of “The Pick-up” wrap you up warmer than even his most choice Christmas songs, a simple, faith-driven tune that softly brings its listener in for reverence. And the mumbled communal sing-song of “Springfield” does what the best moments of ‘Michigan’ did, confessing socio-political strife alongside familial drama the way “The Upper Peninsula” did so magnificently. It’s utterly gorgeous, downwardly swinging as it describes a city suburb full of rain and sorrow.
You’ll find plenty that should’ve stayed on this compilation, of course: Sufjan uses plenty of ‘The Avalanche’ on attempts to fuse the big band arrangements with fuzzy electronics, often creating busier versions of his bigger baroque bangers, such as “The Perpetual Self” and “Pittsfield”. Along with their twee instrumental interludes, they make for charming listens. Beyond that, ‘The Avalanche’ offers one of indie pop’s greatest easter eggs: on it are three alternative takes of “Chicago” that reimagine the song in turn. The ‘acoustic’ version is a wistful, lonely transposition of a song that usually sounds like the whole world; the ‘adult contemporary’ version makes it a quiet hangout with friends, and the ‘multiple personality disorder’ version keeps the songs original pace and tone, but offers something more broken and jammed out. These versions become the centring force of ‘The Avalanche’, offering the clarity alongside the chaos and speaking to Sufjan's generous, ever-whirring brain.
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- The Avalanche by Sufjan Stevens
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