A collection of 21 outtakes from last year's Illinois "shamelessly compiled by Sufjan Stevens" (as the cover faux-modestly reports), The Avalanche lacks by definition the potent thematic thrust that's defined each of this Christian emo-folk heartthrob's previous albums. That's more than a cosmetic issue: Stevens makes no attempt to conceal his literary ambition, and he's succeeded more than many similarly inclined musicians at giving his records a novelistic drive without sacrificing short-story detail in the process. That The Avalanche lacks that remarkable widescreen focus isn't a reason not to listen; it simply demonstrates that Illinois' rapturous reception has already compelled Stevens to sacrifice one of his primary artistic tenets in the name of consumer satisfaction. Blame the Internet.
The Avalanche's highlight is also Illinois' highlight: the dazzling road-trip travelogue "Chicago," presented here in three separate renditions. The "acoustic version" is what it says on the tin, hushed and hymn-like. The "adult contemporary easy listening version" suggests that the only Barry Manilow albums Stevens has heard are the ones on which Manilow is accompanied only by a marimba player. Most interesting, the "Multiple Personality Disorder version" reveals that even this most pious of balladeers isn't immune to the seductive lure of wiry dance-rock guitars. I await the Lil' Jon remix.
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