A few years ago, singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens pledged to make albums devoted to all 50 states, a promise that’s beginning to seem vaguely like a threat. Last year’s opus Illinois was great and diverting and weird, but with 22 songs clocking in at over an hour, it was not, one feels, the sort of thing it was necessary to hear more than once, let alone actually make more than once: Stevens’ latest, The Avalanche, is a 21-track collection of Illinois outtakes, re-takes and general oddities as charming as it is unnecessary.
With his penchant for marching bands, banjos and instructive songs about Mary Todd Lincoln, Stevens is the world’s most maximalist folkie, like a really earnest cross between a less puppyish Devendra Banhart and a more self-conscious They Might Be Giants. Both Illinois and The Avalanche veer between sparky intelligence and tooth-aching whimsy, sometimes on the same song.
Many of the tracks here are good enough to have deserved an airing on Illinois (some of them did, pretty much; that disc’s centerpiece track, “Chicago”, appears here in three differently-arranged versions). Others are slight, even for throwaways. If nothing else, The Avalanche provides an interesting glimpse into Stevens’ artistic process, as well as the best-ever (in fact, probably the only) musical dissertation on Adlai Stevenson.
But even an artist as freakishly prolific as Stevens can’t afford to waste 43 songs on Illinois when he should be readying, say, Maine! or an EP about Delaware. If he wants to get around to the other 48 states before he hits retirement age, he’d better get cracking.