Sufjan Stevens is never going to get through his "50 States" project if he doesn't get the hell out of Illinois. A year after releasing his album-length tribute to The Prairie State—and three years after doing the same for Michigan—Stevens brings The Avalanche, a collection of Illinois outtakes that runs as long as the original album. And Illinois, as brilliant as it was at times, was itself exhaustingly long. It's telling that The Avalanche is built around three versions of Illinois' signature song, "Chicago," each of which shows how Stevens' supple melody and vivid lyrics can survive his damnable inability to make up his mind.
Even this album of leftovers stands against (and eclipses) what just about every other indie-pop act will put out this year. Though Stevens' layered pattern-making sounds less fresh with every 70-minute album he puts out, it's still arresting to hear the trilling flutes and humming strings rise over the bridge of the title track, or the polyphonic coda trail out of the robotic "Dear Mr. Supercomputer." The Avalanche's best songs would've been Illinois standouts as well, like the positivist bio-tune "Adlai Stevenson," and the moody, jarring "Springfield, Or Bobby Got A Shadfly Caught In His Hair."
But on other tracks, like the skimpy "Saul Bellow," a decent set of words is undone by music that—while nice—sounds like it was pulled at random off Stevens' hard drive. This is the inevitable result of absurdly talented musicians like Stevens playing around with the latest home-studio software. Stevens can build up pieces of songs without really knowing where they're going, then shuffle the pieces around even after they're "done." Which makes it easy to wonder why Stevens couldn't have rejiggered these song pieces for a whole new record. Something more focused. Maybe about Delaware.