Album Review: A Beginner’s Mind – Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine
Over the last few years, Sufjan Stevens has stepped away from his indie-folk beginnings, with a few electronic and ambient albums released since 2016’s Carrie and Lowell. As interesting as some of these albums have been, this new project with Angelo De Augustine sees Sufjan returning home to his roots, and it makes for his best album since 2016.
The loose concept of A Beginner’s Mind is that Sufjan and Angelo, living in a cabin, would ‘watch films at night, sketch songs in the morning’. I know that this sounds a bit gimmicky but the fact that I didn’t even notice this fact on my first listen of the singles should tell you that the references thankfully aren’t too on-the-nose.
collaboration never feels forced or out of place.
The album starts with ‘Reach Out‘ and if you like this single then you’ll probably love the rest of them too. It’s a great song with beautiful harmonies, guitars and banjos overlapping each other and Sufjan and Angelo’s voices fit perfectly together. The pair say their writing process was very collaborative, with one writing a verse and the other a chorus and this is clear throughout the album. Their collaboration never feels forced or out of place.
The next couple of songs, ‘Lady Macbeth in Chains’ and ‘Back to Oz’ are more poppy with catchy choruses and pianos. ‘Lady Macbeth’ is a highlight on the album and I’m glad that Stevens and De Augustine didn’t use up all of their skills on the 6 (!) singles. Maybe I’m being a bit dramatic but releasing almost half of the album before its release normally ruins the experience for me; thankfully, the non-single tracks are mostly just as good as the singles.
‘Murder and Crime’ is another highlight for me. It is a stripped-back, slow and sad tune with beautifully simple lyrics like:
“My boy, I don’t know why this life is so cruel and unkind, but it weighs on my heart”.
Hearing Sufjan and Angelo perform these lines is just as moving as anything on the incredibly sad Carrie and Lowell. Sufjan’s music is often best when he’s not trying to be too clever with his lyrics. The fact that this song is inspired by Mad Max is quite perplexing but as I’ve mentioned before, you can definitely just enjoy these songs without paying too much attention to the films; luckily the songs are good enough to stand on their own.
Talking of trying to be too clever with lyrics, I’m not a big fan of ‘(This is) The Thing’. The song itself isn’t particularly interesting and the lyrics don’t help. I feel like Stevens and De Augustine thought their chorus was quite clever but I can’t help but feel that it doesn’t really mean anything:
“My love is a witness for the loss of your innocence So give it all up, give it distance Live it up, for the past of resistance
This song and a couple of others (‘Beginner’s Mind’ + ‘Lost in the World’) aren’t particularly memorable, but fortunately the last few tracks are really nice. ‘Fictional California’ is really fun, with playful guitars and Sufjan’s vocals hopping all over the place. ‘Cimmerian Shade’ as a simple ballad is also really pretty, and the two musicians playing together sounds amazing. All the production was done by Sufjan and Angelo themselves and it sounds just as intimate and natural as Illinois and Carrie and Lowell.
While some have really enjoyed Sufjan’s more experimental music recently, I feel like the general feeling was a hope that he would return to the folky sounds of his earlier albums. I hope that other fans will have been satisfied by A Beginner’s Mind like me. Its saddest moments live up to the saddest Carrie and Lowell moments while its triumphant ones could fit right in on Illinois. De Augustine is a great addition to Stevens’ sound and I would love it if they made another collaboration just like this. It’s so refreshing to hear both of them blend so well together on a simple but lovely album. I will definitely be going back to lots of these tracks, even if I have to skip a couple along the way.