Henry Darger was a reclusive Chicago janitor who made scores of gorgeous, gigantic collage-paintings of hordes of naked little girls fleeing men in Civil War uniforms, all to illustrate an unpublished 8,000-page novel. It figures that Sufjan Stevens would write a song ("The Vivian Girls Are Visited in the Night by Saint Dargarius") that cites Darger — Stevens aspires (and comes excitingly close) to such prolific crackpot genius, the same ineffable, peculiarly American vision that marked assemblagist Joseph Cornell and composer Charles Ives, artists who fashioned highly wrought, idiosyncratic worlds that resounded with invention and a uniquely do-it-yourself Yankee streak that resonate to this day.
More songs about the Land of Lincoln, The Avalanche is a lengthy farrago of reworked outtakes from Stevens 'lambent 2005 concept piece Illinois, continuing the original album's rapturous embrace of history, its rococo arrangements encompassing all manner of era, genre, and mood, branching out in all dimensions in a futile but admirable attempt to render a sonic vista that spans both the old, weird America and the new, even weirder one.
The album's quaint mien, contrasted with its obsessive, digitally enabled sense of craft, harbors an uneasy ebb and flow between folksy Americana ("Saul Bellow") and the brainy chill of post-rock ("Dear Mr. Supercomputer"). Marching band instruments dominate the proceedings in burnished tones while the banjo provides a taut, rustic filigree that threads through the entire album like chicken wire; even the synths burble and gleam in a comfily analogue, Space Age way, but all the pristine precision fairly reeks of Pro Tools. Conversely, Stevens electronically massages his voice, but only to give it a papery edge that makes it innocently sibilant, an effect heightened by his pretty, boyish tenor. It rarely lurches too far in either direction, though, lending the entire proceedings an almost giddy tension.
Besides an arcane geographical survey of places like Pittsfield and Springfield, not to mention no less than three different lakes, The Avalanche is a grab-bag of impressionistic biographies of Illinoisians like the first female mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne; Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered the planet Pluto; and Saul Alinsky, "the father of community organizing." You can hear the olde Yankee streak in the proud banjo, woodwind, and brass counterpoint of "Adlai Stevenson," patriotic snare drums tip-tapping in the historical distance, handclaps punctuating his homage to the beloved former governor of Illinois and two-time Democratic presidential nominee. Topics like the Henney Buggy Company and the infamous Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak of 1965 — not to mention those ten-word song titles — get a little precious, but Stevens easily eludes the barely-masked condescension of other arty swan-dives into Americana like David Byrne's smarmy True Stories.
The Darger tune does venture in the realm of the unreal, an instrumental with whirling sounds that recall Darger's spooky epic as a malfunctioning electric cable summons up the man's apparent mental disarray. Outright reference points are few and far between, although that's definitely a tip of the hat to CSNY-era Neil Young on "Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in his Hair," complete with subdued Youngian electric guitar squalling, and "No Man's Land" vividly recalls Yellow Submarine-era Beatles even as it alludes to Woody Guthrie. Stevens does cover himself, however, venturing three reprises of the moving Illinois highlight "Chicago," although the clutter of the "Multiple Personality Disorder version" obscures the song's wise, confessional force.
Albums of "outtakes and extras" rarely bode well — if they didn't make the album, they're probably not worth listening to. But The Avalanche is more like an extended reprise of its mother album, an encore that, while perhaps not quite as strong as the main show, extends the joy farther and deeper than anyone could ever hope. A patchwork of passages of gratuitously sublime beauty — and often catchier than its predecessor — The Avalanche is one hell of a lagniappe. If only he'd written a song about Barack Obama.