A Beginner’s Mind is an impressive collaborative work, one that beautifully reclaims the sounds and emotional heft of Stevens’ mid-aughts folk efforts.
As our collective nostalgia cycle trudges forward past the cultural touchstones of the ’90s towards those of the early-to-mid-2000s, once-derided or since-forgotten trends from that era have found unexpected new life. Indeed, subjects as disparate as nu-metal, the media persecution of Britney Spears, and even the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan have all been re-interrogated in recent months with the benefit of hindsight and historical context. To a certain extent, something similar has occurred with the music of Sufjan Stevens, whose star story of an inward folk artist turned soul of a nation (or state territory, anyway) has been re-tread by newer artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Big Thief. Though the music of both Bridgers and Big Thief has yet to achieve either the empathy or imagination of Stevens’ heyday, Stevens’ releases following this fertile period have continued to conceive of novel containers for his artistry and personhood, as on his 2015 diaristic masterpiece Carrie & Lowell, or the epic bummer electro-opera of last year’s unfairly maligned The Ascension. His latest release, A Beginner’s Mind — a full-length collaboration with singer-songwriter and Asthmatic Kitty signee Angelo de Augustine — is his most character-driven album since his 2000s works, once again using stories in the public record as a throughline for unlocking the personal truths of artist and subject alike.
The genesis of Beginner’s Mind was a cabin retreat during which Stevens and de Augustine watched movies for songwriting inspiration, with the resulting 14 songs each organized around a particular entry in their watchlist. Yet these are less plot summaries than thematically linked extractions, whose emotional thrusts are handily transposed onto the usual subjects of the Sufjan Stevens’ oeuvre: isolation and longing, despair and belief. Lush opener “Reach Out,” for instance, is nominally associated with Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire, but its yearning for human connection is broadly (and beautifully) expressed enough to have appeared on Stevens’ soundtrack for Call Me by Your Name as well. The lack of consistent focus on subject matter lore is hardly a downside, and the inherently varied conceit of Beginner’s Mind renders it Sufjan’s loosest release in some time, forestalling the fussiness that can sometimes characterize his music. On the sun-dappled “Fictional California,” Stevens and de Augustine poetically channel the cheerleader joie de vivre of the song’s filmic prompt Bring It On Again, while “Lady Macbeth in Chains” traces the late career of All About Eve character Margot Channing with graceful concision. Elsewhere, “Back to Oz” disguises dark truths underneath its jaunty, bustling exterior, persuasively re-framing its subject Return to Oz as a parable of child abuse (the effort being of a piece with Stevens and de Augustine’s stated desire to train their gaze on works now perceived as defamed and “problematic”).
Some of the album’s sonic lightness can also be attributed to Stevens’ return to his once-characteristic folk sound, which he has only performed sparingly since his pivotal 2010 release The Age of Adz. Though Stevens is no slouch as an electronic composer, Christmas caroler, or in any other guise — Stevens’ unpredictability is one of the main reasons his career is worth following, really — his folk albums have always been accompanied by a certain emotional heft, more inclined perhaps to provide a nakedly lovely backdrop to their generally weighty topics (American history, Christianity, and grief among them). Beginner’s Mind is lighter fare than its predecessors, but similarly forgoes the complication en route to straightforward beauty — the autumnal splendor of “Cimmerian Shade” is one such example, as is “The Pillar of Souls,” so gorgeous that a listener could be excused for not keying into its lyrics concerning the demonic S&M exploits of Pinhead in Hellraiser III. To be sure, Stevens has an ideal partner for the genre revival in de Augustine, whose solo performances on “Lost in the World,” the album’s title track, and closer “Lacrimae” are all standouts, and who is so adept at twinning his vocals with Stevens that it can often be difficult to parse who is whom. For de Augustine, Beginner’s Mind is an earned level-up; for Stevens, it is a testament to his once and continued vitality, still inimitable in his ability to reflect on the stories of others while simultaneously extending the narrative of his own.
Published as part of Album Roundup — September 2021 | Part 1.