Sufjan Stevens and Angelo de Augustine join forces in “A Beginner’s Mind”
Of The Fifty States Project, To songs about the eight planets, has a single about ’90s American figure skater Tonya Harding, Sufjan Stevens’ projects have always been thematic and border on chronic ekphrasticism. The Detroit-born singer-songwriter constantly refers to historical panoramas, civic and literary figures, and mythological tales in his songs. Steven’s new album A beginner’s mind is in this same referential vein, a collection of songs written with his label mate Angelo De Augustine inspired by film stories. The duo spent a sabbatical month in a friend’s New York cabin. They would watch movies at night and write songs the next day in response to those stories. Yet as their lyricism unfolds, listeners don’t know exactly which films they are referring to. Instead, the songs are more of a catalyst for philosophical reflections on the experiences and internal tangents that these films inspire. Despite his confidence in the comfort of the two songwriters with the idioms and syntaxes of folk, their compositional strength is as strong as ever.
The instantly recognizable familiarity of Stevens’ sound does not distract from the beauty and intimacy of the music; each song has a unique cadence with something to offer any Stevens or De Augustine fan. With so many different styles and strong compositions, it’s not hard to find “your” track – the one you fall in love with and listen to on repeat. The organization of the album makes it easy to get lost in each section, as each set of songs becomes almost addicting to listen to. Easy to start and harder to stop, A beginner’s mind will appeal to any folk listener.
As soon as the guitar strikes the opening of “Reach Out”, it is clear that Stevens returns to a style of folk that was a staple of his previous discography, reminiscent of the Fifty States Project albums like Illinois or other projects like Carrie & Lowell. The song collapses into harmonious whispers and reverberating chimes, setting the tone for the rest of the album: explosive chamber instrumentals, delicate lyrics and moving vocals.
This same energy is carried in “Lady Macbeth in Chains” as the song oscillates between its frightening verses and its melodic refrain. Perhaps one of the album’s most popular tracks, “Back to Oz,” resonates in its haunting guitar chords against the characteristic melancholy present in most of Stevens’ songs, but with a more touching and almost touching twist. psychedelic. Just look at the Musical clip for the trail to see how far they’ve taken the concept of a girl and her pet’s bad lucid dreaming.
Although inspired by “The Wizard of Oz” and the dark fantasy sequel “Return to Oz”, as seen in the blanket for the bachelor and the official movie list Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label released for the album, his lyrics scramble the film. The lyrics to “Back to Oz” are perhaps the only direct reference to the movies, and a new story is told with poignant lines like: “Back to Oz / Where I is born at the start / Don’t be my last call / Do you mind that I collapse?
The films are purely a framework that Stevens and De Augustine can make their own. They rework the narrative, reinvent the characters and recreate the story with their own emotions and experiences. By taking this film and writing a song that sounds like the original piece but is definitely ‘theirs’, the imagery and nostalgia is reused into something new and much more expressive.
A movie nerd might be able to recognize the references and images hidden between the lines of their common handwriting, but prior knowledge is not necessary to appreciate the album. Instead, you can just hit play and let those sweet angelic melodies wash over you, just like you would any other Stevens or De Augustine album.
The cover of A beginner’s mind depicts a Medusa head on a naked human body, with angel wings and a subtle butterfly resting on its chin – a potential nod to “Silence of the Lambs”, which Stevens has previously referred to in his work and again here in “Cimmerian Shade”. Ghanaian artist Daniel Anum Jasper was commissioned to do illustrations for the project, hand painting various versions of the cover art based on photos, visual cues and inspiration sent by Stevens, including Jonathan Demme (“Silence of the Lambs”) to which the album is dedicated.
In the 1980s and 1990s, and even today, Jasper and other Ghanaian poster artists were commissioned to create movie posters based on little information. Ranging from comedic portrayals of the characters to vibrant expressive revisions of the films, artists have added their own imagery and flair to the film posters in order to capture the buzz, curiosity and intensity of the films being screened.
This practice is present in Stevens and De Augustine’s inspiration for the music itself, which made Jasper the perfect artist to represent this reimagining of the films. Art becomes a collage of expression that reinvents the film in the eyes of the poster artist. And by taking their memories and impressions from the movies and turning them into their own visions, songwriters tell their own stories through new eyes, like the album description on Band Camp Says: “The underlying goal was empathy and openness, without judgment: to observe what is pure and good – or seemingly dark and bad – through the eyes of a child.
This collection of songs is both a throwback to the old and a recreation in a new light, whether it’s interpretations of classic tales like “Hellraiser III” or “She’s Gotta Have It” by Spike Lee or complex stories and emotions of the songwriters themselves that they recognize on screen. Stevens’ ability to respond to fiction with lyricism is undeniable, but De Augustine’s strength as a writer also shines in the sensibility and subtle poetry of the songs in his 2019 work. Tomb. Yet the two songwriters immerse themselves, as well as the listener, in the love and soul of the characters in these films.
Stevens even comes back to Call me by your name “Mystery of Love” with a touching, moving and lo-fi similar piece with “(This is) The Thing”. Its title clearly references John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” but with Stevens’ weak, emotional voice and haunting guitar pinch, it bears no resemblance to the actual tone and setting of the film. What remains is the social paranoia of the original but told in a completely different context: a classic folk song by Sufjan Stevens commenting on our anxieties and fears of everyday life, which is especially strong after a year of recovery. pandemic-induced issue.
As we begin to emerge from this paranoid time, we are called to use these songs that look at the old and the familiar with new eyes as hymns to explore a world marred by fear. Using memory and the recreation of films, Stevens and De Augustine encourage us to look at things in a new light. It’s easy to get carried away by Sufjan Stevens and her extensive discography, to watch A beginner’s mind and recognize his older folk styles that are so prevalent in these compositions.
But isn’t that exactly the point that they’re ringing in the house reusing stories from old movies? Yes, it’s reminiscent of old Sufjan Stevens and similar albums by Angelo De Augustine, but it’s definitely new and dynamic.
Daily Arts writer Conor Durkin can be contacted at [email protected]