ALBUM REVIEW: Sufjan Stevens/Angelo De Augustine, A Beginner's Mind
Whenever I review a new album, I generally like to look at the holistic experience — the cover, the title, the marketing, the personnel — and try to understand the artist’s intention. For example, let’s take a bloated mess like Imagine Dragons’ Mercury - Part 1. Off the bat, the title wrongly assumes we want a part two. The cover looks like something off an old Killers album, without even listening I could tell they are going for an epic, anthemic and conceptual experience. They failed, sure, but let’s take this new Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine project, A Beginner’s Mind. Leading up, the single covers referenced a lot of copyrighted movies. On top of that, Sufjan rarely collaborates, and especially not with someone who is brand new. This tells me Sufjan is shifting from singing about family (Carrie and Lowell) or the 50 States (Illinois and Michigan), fully into film. But what does that title mean?
It seems like after breaking through into the mainstream once again with his lovely track for Call Me By Your Name, Sufjan has a new penchant for writing to films. So is this the new beginning? No, the “beginner” is Angelo. On the title track, Sufjan sings “Will you let yourself unwind?/Put your soul on the line/Striving for a beginner's mind”. Maybe I’m incorrect, but I don’t care. I think that Sufjan is taking his weathered and learned musical knowledge and combining it with that of fresh blood in Angelo through the universal experience of watching films. According to the background for this album, the duo spent a significant amount of time in a remote cabin recording and watching movies all day. The result is a loosely conceptual but very fun record that sounds like two musicians simultaneously shooting the shit and being each other’s therapist.
I’d say the best thing this record has going for it besides Sufjan’s unique vocals and Angelo’s guitar work has to be how interestingly and differently they approach each film. And before you go “oh it’s just two hipsters expounding about their overrated Criterion films”, there’s a song about Bring It On Again (yes the cheerleading movie) on here and it’s fucking amazing. I’ll take it from the top and skip what I think he could have left out. Wings of Desire is a German film about a pair of immoral angels that watch over Berlin. When one of them decides to interact with the natural world and become moral for love, it causes a bit of an existential crisis for the Earth. If this sounds confusing and insane, well, the song is written just as cryptically. Yeah I’ve never seen this film, but the powerful lyrics “Ponder what is right/You and I, in defiance” summarize the themes of the film quite well. A rush of shakers, acoustic guitar and Sufjan’s patented calm vocal delivery is so welcoming, perfect to open the record.
“Lady Macbeth In Chains” connects the Broadway-centric classic that is basically a precursor to Single White Female to the ambitions of Lady Macbeth. Since the film is more grounded and straightforward, Sufjan addresses the plot points directly and actually tries to warn the main character about her fate. I love the hushed verses followed by the passionate choruses, it feels dark and appropriate. Even better is “Back To Oz”, a pretty ballad that is loosely related to Return To Oz. “You love me but you don’t know me/In due time you’ll throw it away” might be one of my favorite set of lines this year, mainly because of the heartbreak I’ve experienced this year. Like on St. Vincent’s “Down and Out Downtown”, the duo start underground and then soar progressively higher with each chorus. Gorgeous, one of the best songs this year. “Pillar of Souls” sounds chill, but in its lyrics it takes the POV of Pinhead in concrete from Hellraiser III, who uses a shady club owner to feed him souls in exchange for power. Rather than resolve the story with a happy ending, the song revels in the deep sorrow and bloodlust and then ends.
“You Give Love A Bad Name” is quite cheeky in how it interpolates the Bon Jovi song of a similar name, combining it with the zombie classic Night of the Living Dead. There is a sense of dread conveyed by deep, dark guitar chords and lyrics like “Shot to the skull, or strike to the brain”. Another one of my top three. I love the melodies on “Beginner’s Mind”, I also it’s subtle electronics as well as it’s opening that sounds like a more accurate wrap up of our fucked up world than “We Didn’t Start The Fire”. While “(This Is) The Thing” is not the most instrumentally dense, I am charmed by the simple songwriting and shifting choruses. If you know anything about John Carpenter’s The Thing, a Sufjan depression bar like “This is the thing about people/You never really know what's inside” is a real treat.
Referencing the Australian film about a mysterious Aborigal death in the setting of an unending storm, “Lost In The World” harnesses the mystical qualities quite well. It feels like a welcome snap back into liveliness after a lull of songs that barely address the themes and bleed together instrumentally. “Fictional California” is another one of my absolute favorites. It’s as if they know I’m on Wikipedia considering the title of the song appears directly in the plot synopsis on the site. So classic for Sufjan to use a festive American pastime like cheerleading to dig deep into his emotions. The phrase “a basket toss for the loss of my broken dreams” is something that could only come from a specific record like this, and that’s what makes this album as a whole standout. He takes a simple and stupid film like Bring It On Again, and elevates it to high art next to an AFI top 10 film of all time like All About Eve. Artists like him and Phoebe Bridgers who explore the doldrums and dollar stores of the U.S.A. and make music about it are the true patriots.
“Cimmerian Shade” is the last song I really enjoy on this record, mostly because of its reference point (Silence of the Lambs). This has got to be the most creative of all the songs in the bunch, once again taking the perspective of the villains. This time, Sufjan sings as Hannibal and Buffalo Bill, who are somehow spun as sympathetic. “I just wanted to change myself/Fix it all, Jonathan Demme” they plead, begging the film’s director to make them not serial killers. It’s deeper than that though, these two characters hate themselves, especially Bill with his “autogynophilia” or closeted transgender identity. It’s as if they’re saying, “Jonathan you bastard, if you just made us honest and gave us good coping mechanisms, we’d be in rom coms!” I find shit like this endlessly entertaining, Sufjan is attempting to go back in fictional time and either identify with or save these movie characters. With the help of Angelo, he is able to put himself in that world to at least give it a go. This is one of the most creative and heartfelt folky records in a year full of Jack Antonoff-core. It stands out amongst its contemporaries because the pair have the advantage of experience in Stevens and fresh eyes in Augustine.