Sufjan Stevens

The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras From the Illinois Album

(Asthmatic Kitty)

The cover of Sufjan Stevens’s The Avalanche–a new collection of outtakes that almost turned last year’s Illinois into a double album–cheekily describes the disc as “shamelessly compiled.” Shameless indeed. It’s easy to see why these 21 tracks were left off the album for which they were originally intended–they aren’t very good. It’d be fair to call this a cash-in, not a coda–but don’t take my word on it, take Sufjan’s. Here’s Mr. Stevens in a recent Pitchfork interview, discussing The Avalanche:

“I’m not so sure it is [worth releasing], even now. I think I decided that the material was interesting to me, so maybe it would be interesting to an audience. I was going to post them online as free downloads, but I’d spent so much time reworking them and editing them that I felt there was a value to them, that it wouldn’t honor the songs enough to have them as downloads.”

He admits that he “probably wouldn’t” have released The Avalanche at all if Illinois hadn’t been so well received, then describes that idea–that the existence of an audience is what gives music its value–as “gross.” The Pitchfork interviewer lets him off the hook, reassuring him that such a linkage is “kind of inevitable.” Exploiting a new and eager fan base by feeding them an album that’s admittedly just finessed scraps is the Music Industry Way. More depressing is how Stevens conflates the album’s aesthetic value–its value to listeners–with monetary value. The principle is familiar to any eBay PowerSeller: someone will buy your trash, so why not sell it? It’s not exactly a shocking idea in postmodern capitalist America, but as Stevens acknowledges, it’s gross.

It’s reassuring that Stevens calls himself on his own bullshit, but the fact is that even in indie rock it’s now considered strange, almost Shaker quaint, to pass up a chance to milk an audience. We’re only days past one of indiedom’s first million-dollar mega-events, the Pitchfork Music Festival. The stakes aren’t low anymore–indie rock is a viable career path. Success is no longer something that overtakes indie bands, to be apologized for sheepishly; it’s something they actively pursue. The market consciousness that Stevens and his Pitchfork interviewer both display is indicative of this changing of the guard–in the post-White Stripes, post-Interpol landscape, where it’s possible for bands to tunnel up from the underground into a Nextel commercial, just trying to make a few decent records while holding down a part-time job is definitely aiming low.

Though Stevens’s hand-wringing seems sincere, his reservations about exploiting his fans obviously didn’t bother him enough to keep him from releasing The Avalanche. By raising the question of shame (or the lack of it) on the CD cover, he’s indirectly invoking the guilelessness of the indie rock of yore. But the kind of indie rock that took shame and modesty of ambition as two of its core values is now cooling fast in its grave.

So, if Sufjan is willing to foist a record on us because he thinks it’ll bring in enough money to make it worth the trouble, why shouldn’t we appraise it on the same terms? If the question is not one of art but of dollars and cents, what’s The Avalanche worth? Does it earn that $11.99 price tag? The CD art, with motifs recycled from Illinois, might be worth 15 cents. And we could probably tack on another five cents for the photos inside where the band looks cute. On the free market, could the Fogelbergian title track, with its twinkling inertia, fetch more than 23 cents? I would actually pay to not hear “Dear Mr. Supercomputer” ever again–its choral singing sounds like Rubber Soul via the Manhattan Transfer. “The Henney Buggy Band” is a clever song, almost worthy of Illinois, but much of the rest sounds like Stevens was hammering out a kitchen-sink approach to keeping smooth music alive, or maybe angling to get his record reviews tagged with “RIYL: England Dan & John Ford Coley.”

Most regrettably, “Chicago”–inarguably Stevens’s finest work and the most glowingly sophisticated pop-rock single to make it to commercial airwaves in years–appears on The Avalanche in triplicate. There’s the “adult contemporary easy listening version,” an acoustic version, and most egregiously the “Multiple Personality Disorder version,” which will make you resent him for even putting it to tape–it’s like if Big Star released a remake of “Thirteen” with Alex Chilton burping the lyrics.

Ultimately, Stevens assumes wrong–the time he spent reworking his scraps fails to make them interesting. He’s overvalued this music, but even more unfortunately he’s undervalued his fans–if he really respected them, he would’ve spared them from The Avalanche.