Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine: A Beginner’s Mind – easy going and not forced
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Sufjan Stevens has been on a big musical journey lately. Last year’s album Ascension confronted the violence of Trump’s America with glitchy and messy electronic songs, a repudiation of the indie-Americana style he made his name playing in the 2000s. “I’m so sick of folk music. “, He explained. It was followed by the monumental Summons, a 49-track ambient instrumental ensemble released earlier this year, which addressed the heartbreak the singer-songwriter experienced after his father’s death in 2020. He had no words for it: he there was no vocals on the album. He seemed to be fed up with the song format itself.
Beside these albums, A beginner’s mind is a slight relief. He associates the prolific Stevens with the Californian singer-songwriter Angelo De Augustine. The musical style reconnects him to the indie-folk sound he spoke of moving away from. Meanwhile, the concept – each song is inspired by a particular movie – recalls fanciful projects from early in his career, like his unique ambition to write an album about every American state.
The 14 songs were composed during a month-long stay in upstate New York. The musical duo would watch movies at night and write together during the day. While the film selection is scattered, existential meditation Lacrimae Rerum to trash cheerleader comedy Bring it again, the musical style is coherent. It doesn’t matter if the inspiration is Mad Maxoutback survivalism (“Murder and Crime”) or Wings of desireThe lyrical tale of loss and mourning in Berlin (“Reach Out”), softly interwoven patterns of acoustic guitars and breathy vocal harmonies is the default mode.
In “The Pillar of Souls”, Hellraiser IIIThe occult gore of (“Drink the blood of my wine”) is transformed into the ritual chant of a pleasant folk-pop songwriting retreat. “Olympus”, based on the fantasy of the sword and the sandal Clash of the Titans, goes from the great discourse on oracles to the monumental personal significance of a first kiss. “You Give Death a Bad Name” uses the classic zombie Night of the Living Dead take a wry look at contemporary American society, a ground similar to that covered by Stevens in Ascension.
There are glimpses of a broader musical view, like the heightened sense of psychological disintegration with which “Cimmerian Shade” concludes – a song sung provocatively from the point of view of serial killer “Buffalo Bill” by Thesilenceofthelambs. But most of the time, the music goes smoothly. Simon and Garfunkel and Elliott Smith are top stars.
Fans of Stevens’ earlier work will be delighted with his return as a prodigal son after his various experiences with electronic music. Collaborating with De Augustine in such a free and easy way also seems to have dampened the maximalist side of his imagination. contrary to Summons, which runs longer than any of the movies the duo have watched, A beginner’s mind lasts a little over 40 minutes. But the album’s relaxed, unforced air comes at a cost.
Stevens and De Augustine form a well-matched duo; almost doppelgängers, in fact. But unlike the themes of the double that appear in the movies they’ve watched – especially Bette Davis’ turn as a Broadway diva threatened by a young rival in All about Eve, the starting point of “Lady Macbeth in Chains” – the two musicians rarely develop a corresponding sense of dynamics in their own lead roles. The result robs these otherwise entertaining songs of drama or tension. There is too much light relief: the album leaves less imprint on the films which inspired it than it could have done.
‘A beginner’s mind‘is released by Asthmatic Kitty Records