One ought generally to approach any album of outtakes and discarded tracks with care, even with suspicion. But such is the prolific talent of Sufjan Stevens that one welcomesa further 75 minutes of ideas and fragments from the sessions for Illinois, last year's best album.
Stevens has an ongoing project to record an album for each American state, writing songs celebrating the geography, townships, industries, peculiarities, famous sons and daughters, and other phenomena of each one, mingled with his own recollections. His home state Michigan was first in 2004, followed last year by the sublime, immensely entertaining Illinois, to which this constitutes a hefty addendum.
Accordingly, there are songs here about Adlai Stevenson and Saul Bellow, Pittsfield and Carlyle Lake, and an instrumental tribute to artist Henry Darger, "The Vivian Girls are Visited in the Night by Saint Dargarius and his Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies". The title is typical of Stevens's cryptic-comic style, which elsewhere furnishes such enigmatic locutions as "Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in his Hair", "The Perpetual Self, or 'What Would Saul Alinsky Do?'" and the Zappa-esque sounding "Inaugural Pop Music for Jane Margaret Byrne".
A classically-trained oboist, Stevens creates absorbing woodwind, tuned percussion, keyboards and brass arrangements to accompany his folksy banjo-picking. He plays everything bar a few trumpet and percussion parts himself. The result, as in "Dear Mr Supercomputer", is a frantic web of sound beneath a monotone staccato vocal suggestive of machine consciousness, as he ponders the theological ramifications of Artifical Intelligence: "Oh religion, superstition / Man's conditioned mysteries incomplete".
"Carlyle Lake", "Kaskaskia River" and "The Palm Sunday Tornado Hits Crystal Lake" are brief instrumental cameos featuring swirling woodwind, shimmering guitar and melancholy piano, respectively. Elsewhere, there are three more versions of Illinois's "Chicago", while a dismaying liaison in an airport motel is recounted in the aforesaid "Springfield..." over a sleek 1970s soft-rock setting, a savagely atonal guitar break rudely soiling its middle eight. The Avalanche makes a wonderful companion-piece to Illinois, even if it isn't as endowed with catchy melodies. It offers a fine introduction to a fascinating performer, a man determined to remember what made America great, when it was great.
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