‘A Beginner’s Mind’: A Masterful Album by Angelo De Augustine and Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens is something of a serial songwriter. Albums appear so frequently that it’s almost difficult to keep up; but when singles started appearing for A Beginner’s Mind, I was intrigued. A new collaborator in Angelo De Augustine and the new theme of film were exciting prospects. Die-hard fans will have seen a couple of live singles that the pair released on De Augustine’s Spotify in 2019; but a whole new album? This was going to be interesting.

The album’s release in late September revealed a fourteen-track behemoth. Each takes some inspiration from one of the pair’s favourite films, ranging from Point Break and Bring It On Again to The Silence of the Lambs – it’s eclectic to say the least. It’s great fun seeing how they’ve tackled the complex themes of these films in three minutes bites.

‘Back to Oz’, probably the best of the six singles, concerns Return to Oz. For a song about a children’s film, it doesn’t hold back. It moves through the difficulties of a damaged mental landscape and problematic family relationships. Opening with a crisp guitar riff, it builds to climax in the chorus where we’re given a picture of Dorothy’s competing mental and physical landscapes (“Back to, back to Oz / Where I was born at the start /Don’t be my lost cause/ Do you mind that I’m falling apart?”).  In an interview with GQ, Sufjan Stevens talks more deeply about the film’s problems—the disconnect between the original and sequel; the abuse of Dorothy in the framing narrative—and this gives rise to discussion of the entire roster of problematic films across the album. Ultimately, the album seeks to call out these problems whilst celebrating a varied history of film.

Another notable track is ‘Lady Macbeth in Chains’, a really catchy track covering themes of ageing, backstabbing and professional success in All About Eve (1950). The song builds atmosphere with vibrant layered vocals that break into lilting chords and bright harmony in the pre-chorus. They play with you, combining bright tunes with grim lyrics such as “backstabbing feeds on its own inventory,”. This incongruity is genuinely funny, making the album an enjoyable experience as well as a meaningful one. It was also great to hear these artists experiment with tracks like ‘Lost in the World’ where they moved from their traditional fingerpicking and gentle vocals and played with Celtic-style rhythm.

De Augustine has been releasing music since around 2014, with several albums including 2017’s Swim Inside the Moon. As track titles ‘Haze’ and ‘Crazy, Stoned and Gone’ suggest, much of Swim Inside the Moon feels dreamlike in its musicality: gentle vocals and rippling vibrato on ‘More Than You Thought To Use’ and constant reference to recreational drugs foster a deeply relaxed and ethereal feel. De Augustine and Sufjan insist they weren’t taking anything while writing A Beginner’s Mind – “We didn’t even have any weed” – but there’s a certain stoned quality that does begin to permeate some of the tracks.  .

I could wax lyrical about Sufjan but I’ll keep it brief by saying he’s a powerhouse of musicality. The rate at which he produces music never ceases to amaze me. In just a year he’s put his name to The Ascension, an ode to America and the early pandemic, Convocations, a 49-song ‘requiem mass’ for the difficulties of the first year of the pandemic; and now A Beginner’s Mind. The flow of his musicality is fascinating to watch and most of albums are only safe to listen to with a box of tissues at hand, yet each manages to break your heart in a different way.

A Beginner’s Mind is no different in its emotional intensity, but this new collaboration brings out another facet of Sufjan’s musical armoury. De Augustine’s gentle lyricism and guitar playing pairs wonderfully with Sufjan’s lyrical prowess, making A Beginner’s Mind a really exciting project for this Autumn.

Millie Green

Featured Image: Still via Youtube // Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine – “A Beginner’s Mind” (Official Full Album Stream) – Sufjan Stevens

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