You wouldn’t think he’d have time for anything else, yet here he is giving us The Avalanche, a collection of outtakes and extras once destined to accompany the Prairie State paean. But this is no ordinary throwaways album. While it lacks an obvious unifying theme, the songs all loosely reflect one another. Stevens also more freely employs his brand of minimalist polyphony, with a few more risks taken in the direction of electronics, distortion, and dizzying time signatures.
Stevens hedged his bets by offering free streams of the album online prior to its release several weeks ago. He understands that being prolific doesn’t always mean producing the best material, and he doesn’t take The Avalanche too seriously: “The Mistress Witch of McClure (or the Mind That Knows Itself)” combines top-notch storytelling with Stevens’ trademark philosophical observations; “No Man’s Land” explores what he sees as the American concept of ownership; and there are three versions of the Illinoise centerpiece, “Chicago.”
The Avalanche has its flaws. Certain songs seem half-written (like “Saul Bellow,” the famous novelist whom Stevens ditched in favor of the romantic Carl Sandburg for Illinoise). Others are just lesser versions of Illinoise stand-outs. Still, this piece of extra credit makes for a fun listen and surely one of the better releases this year