No one could ever accuse Sufjan Stevens of being a slacker. His prolific works and numerous collaborations display a mind ever labouring in the fields of new and provocative music. Sufjan, along with rising Indie Folk performer Angelo De Augustine, has released A Beginner's Mind. This collaboration marks the follow up of Stevens's Ninth studio album Convocations, released in May of this year, and De Augustine's 2019 studio album release Tomb. Both artists offer the 21st century's answer to Simon and Garfunkel with harmonies and sonics meant to salve the soul in this collaboration.
A Beginner's Mind came into being in a cabin in upstate NY, where the pair embarked on a movie marathon, and after viewing each movie, they would create a musical response. The film spanned from classic to modern, popular to art house. The result is a glorious blending of two gifted performers' voices. In many ways, the album combines Stevens most popular work, Carrie and Lowell, with De Augustine's noteworthy 2019 offering Tomb coming up with something filled with unfathomable emotional depth and beauty.
On A Beginner's Mind, Stevens and De Augustine wrote, arranged, performed and mixed the release. Fans of Stevens are familiar with his almost compulsive creative control over the development of his releases. By Stevens ever so slightly losing his creative control by working in tandem with De Augustine, their new creation soars. Additionally evident is that the voices/lyrics came first and then the accompaniment. Throughout, there is a zeal for exploring the connection between movies and music, which creates something truly original.
A Beginner's Mind launches with "Reach Out" filled with LoFo guitar strings and stirring sunlit harmonies. The topic is acceptance and fleshed out with lyrical sentiments like "home is where you call my name". The track is a bridge from Carrie and Lowell to this release. "Lady Macbeth in Chains" is a homage to the movie "All About Eve", discussing the fickleness of fame and narcissistic plotting. "Back to Oz" takes its themes from The Wizard of Oz opening with a great guitar line and is spellbinding with its combination of gossamer-like fragility and rock band lashings. The difficulty level of this track is high, with failure almost certain, yet the duo pulls it off as they examine the ideas of fidelity and backing up your cohorts. This track is one of the high points in a release filled with them. "The Pillar of Souls" offers a phantasmagoric surrounding honouring the horror film/thriller genres. What many find as certainly repellent becomes beautiful in the duo's hands.
"You Give Death a Bad Name" is another stand out on release with its stream of consciousness approach to the lyrics as it examines the symbolism of death. I did think the pair might be taking the piss with the title as a hat tip to the over the top anathematic Bon Jovi tune "You Give Love a Bad Name". Here instead of that bombast, a gentle song of great shimmering loveliness is delivered. Other tracks follow suit with delightful ruminations on movies and themes. The title track "A Beginner's Mind" suggests we should all bring the innocent zeal of the Zen Buddhists to our approach to life. Continuing "It's Your Own Body and Mind" touts Feminist and self-esteem, while "Lost in the World" weaves ethereal threads of wonder with life and our world. These tracks and many others allow the listener to lose themselves amidst the artistry of the sonics as the lyrics wash over the mind.
The back half of the tracks continue to shine, "Olympus" taking up the topics of home not being a place but instead found in a person, with the stellar vocals creating goosebumps. "Murder & Crime", once again like "The Pillar of Souls", takes on an off-putting topic as it looks for an answer to violence and its aftermath. Here Sufjan becomes Solomon in Ecclesiastes, asking God why. "(This is) The Thing" continues this questioning bringing up various problems and providing the duo's viewpoint. The continuous refrain, "My soul is a witness to the loss of your innocence", emphasizes that no matter our mature pain, there are younger generations who will suffer more for our shortcomings.
The final three tracks are as noteworthy as any on the release. "Fictional California" is a bouncing selection and ode to Hollywood, the place where the magic of movies happens, capturing the magic of the movie-watching experience. "Cimmerian Shade" is dedicated to the genius of the director Johnathan Demme and his masterwork, "The Silence of the Lambs", especially the character of Clarice Starling. The final magnificent sign off "Lacrimae" has a panoramic interstellar feel that Sufjan has become so apt in producing. The track is filled with sadness, and bittersweet yearning as both artists see through a glass darkly into the meaning of life.
With A Beginner's Mind, both Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine deliver a glorious panacea for the stresses and trials of our current times. Time and again while listening, I was struck by the allure of both voices, and although the songs can sit alone, the sum is greater than the parts. Simply for the beauty of hearing these two voices together, the album is worth the trip. For fans of Stevens, this release is the long-awaited studio album follow up to the magnificent Carrie and Lowell.
Sufjan has always followed his muse through Electronica, Folk, Classical and Experimental genres scoring critical and widespread acclaim and mining gold with A Beginner's Mind. Along with De Augustine Stevens delivers the heartfelt and breathtaking, do not miss this release.