Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Sufjan Backlash

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, one of my favorite music critics, weighs in on Sufjan Stevens' new album The Avalanche, and offers a revised take on the Suffi phenomenon in The Case Against Sufjan Stevens.

It's inevitable that a Sufjan backlash would ensue upon the release of whatever followed Illinois. That album was both universally heralded and massively overhyped (yes, I might have played a small part in that too), and I think Erlewine is right to insist that the hype doesn't match the reality of the music. So Sufjan the Wunderkind isn't the second coming of Mozart. Okay, I'll buy that. But he's still very good, and a lot better than Erlewine is willing to admit.

First, he totally misses the point of songs like "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," which isn't about an adolescent obsession, as Erlewine claims, but about the darkness at the heart of every individual -- including Sufjan the Wunderkind -- and which can turn even oboe and banjo players into mass murderers.

Second, I think Erlewine either misses or overlooks the many personal moments on Illinois that transform the album into far more than a geographical checklist. "Casimir Pulaski Day" is the obvious example, and if it has anything to do with geography, it is the nameless and universal geography of loss and grief. Even the songs that namecheck Illinois cities and landmarks -- "Chicago" and "Jacksonville" -- have far more to do with internal journeys and changes than they do with encyclopedic facts and figures. Sufjan isn't playing musical Jeopardy here. He's exploring his soul, as all good songwriters do.

Somehow it seems that Erlewine misses this. I understand, on one hand, the cynical reaction that almost had to follow the effusive outpouring that came with Illinois. I still think that Sufjan is a very good songwriter, even if he is not brilliant, and that he manages to sound like no one but himself. I would also agree with Erlewine that The Avalanche is not as good as Illinois. No kidding. The Avalanche consists of outtakes from Illinois, and usually outtakes are outtakes for a reason.

That said, The Avalanche reminds me all over again about what it is that I love about Sufjan -- his obsessive nerd tendencies combined with a soft, compassionate heart, and an ability to concoct dazzling arrangements. That's still a good combination, and I'm enjoying it all over again on the new album.


John McCollum said...

I think we'd all be surprised at how many oboe and banjo players actually ARE serial killers.

John McCollum said...

Oh, and I agree that Erelewine misses the point, and misses what Sufjan is trying to do.

On the other hand, I'm left with a subjective impression of Sufjan's music that is remarkably similar to the one Erelewine describes.

Anonymous said...

Well, at least he didn't compare Sufjan to Rafi (but he came close at least once).

Andy Whitman said...

In case anyone is interested in what other folks are saying about "The Avalanche':

100 E! Online
Most of these songs are just as good, if not better, than the ones that actually made the cut.

91 Entertainment Weekly
These wistful folk-pop leftovers are better than most acts' A game.

90 Slant Magazine
The more interesting discussion to be had about The Avalanche is whether it says more about Sufjan Stevens or everyone else that a collection of even his second-tier material ranks among the most superior releases of the year.

89 Austin Chronicle
Avalanche,... is all over the place musically but never loses the singer-songwriter's jaw-dropping vision.

80 The Guardian
Stevens is a pensively nostalgic folk chorister like the Paul Simon of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme: he is just as prone to swerving into an epiphanic Bach-lite chorale, but as yet short of memorable tunes on his own account. He's close enough to be fascinating, though.

80 PopMatters
Although not as flat-out amazing as its parent album, this new record shows us that even Stevens’s warmed-up leftovers are more creative, engaging, sophisticated, beautiful, and simply better than what most other musical acts have to offer with their A-list material.

80 ShakingThrough.net
The biggest upside to the release, however, is that now the intrepid Illinois enthusiast can cobble together one super playlist.

72 Pitchfork
It's hard not to compare the two albums and find this one wanting; even the best songs, which are quite good, wouldn't bump anything off of Illinois.

70 All Music Guide
Stevens constructed an alternate version of Illinois that is almost as good as the original.

70 Under The Radar
What Stevens does most successfully here is expand the notion of American song.

67 Stylus Magazine
Anyone expecting a pared down, contented Sufjan can bugger off. If anything, The Avalanche chases his caprice and whimsy further down the rabbit hole.

60 Prefix Magazine
There's a difference between a damn fine song and the brilliance that made up Stevens's previous two releases, Illinois and Seven Swans. Unfortunately, The Avalanche clunks through track after track of damn fine songs while only rarely hitting these moments that make your body tingle in euphoria.

60 NOW Magazine
There's very little here that ups the ante (or matches the highlights) of the original Illinois disc.

60 Delusions of Adequacy
Ultimately, The Avalanche lacks the lasting impact of Illinois, as its songs don’t quite hold the same sense of gravitas, economy, and focus.

60 Rolling Stone
The Avalanche packs enough weirdo magic to make it more than just a gift to his growing cult.

50 Dusted Magazine
The Avalanche is, perhaps predictably, a middling reconstitution of its legitimate predecessor.

40 Billboard
Too often his songs fail to captivate beyond a curiosity factor.

Andy Whitman said...

Sorry, I should give credit where credit is due. That last set of comments is courtes of metacritic.com (http://www.metacritic.com/music/)