In praise of Sufjan Stevens

As Tim Reidy pointed out a few weeks ago, I'm a big fan of Sufjan (pronounced SOOF-YAHN) Stevens. (See my review of his album Seven Swans.) The overtly religious themes of that record made it an obvious subject for a Commonweal review.

Less obvious Commonweal fodder, though, was his follow-up album, Illinois, which I mention at the end of the review:

Not long after the release of Seven Swans, Stevens announced that his next album would be Illinois,the second in a plan to cut one record for each state in the Unionacurious project for the theologically minded Stevens, but one in linewith the playfulness that characterizes much of his work. The audacityof the idea raised the eyebrows of pop-culture observers, garneringStevens a raft of media attention; but when Illinois was released thisyear, it received a four-star review in Rolling Stone.One has to wonder, whats more astonishing: the guts it takes to embarkon such a plan, or the fact that an artist who sings so openlysoastutelyabout his faith just might be the next big thing?

The album was one of the best of 2005; here we are, halfway through 2006, and Stevens has already dropped another record--"outtakes" from Illinois he's calling The Avalanche. "Outtakes" doesn't quite do justice to the material. Illinois was planned as a two-disc release, but, as Stevens explains, common sense intervened and he pared it down to one.

So most of the songs on The Avalanche were ready for prime time, or close to it, when Illinois hit stores. The tracks are fully mixed and mastered--no bloopers on this reel. There are, however, three alternative recordings of the song "Chicago" ("Acoustic," "Adult Contemporary Easy Listening," and "Multiple Personality Disorder" versions)--one of the best on Illinois. The handful of briefer instrumental tracks don't quite measure up, but the others are almost uniformly excellent.

The Avalanche makes Illinois look like a stronger piece, not because it's inferior--it is, but not by much--but because it's so good. "Saul Bellow," "No Mans Land," and "Pittsfield" are especially well-built songs--couldn't have been easy to cut those. His outtakes are bettter than most artist's final releases. The Avalanche only solidifies my opinion that Sufjan Stevens is one of the most talented, interesting, and intelligent young songwriters working today.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

Also by this author
Fr. Richard McBrien, R.I.P.

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