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.
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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.