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.