To record A Beginner’s Mind, Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine spent a month together in a cabin in upstate New York, watching movies at night and writing songs the next morning. The space-rock of recent Sufjan releases still cuts through on the whining synths of ‘Murder & Crime’ and in the Boards of Canada-style outro to ‘Lady Macbeth in Chains’, but for the most part A Beginner’s Mind sees Stevens shifting onto De Augustine’s territory, as well as returning to the psychedelia and folk influences of his earlier work. This blurring together extends to their approach to lyrics; the duo deliberately shuffled their work together, finishing each other’s lines and leaning into surrealist imagery and thoughtful digressions.
Sometimes this approach to lyricism feels inspired, as on ‘You Give Death A Bad Name’, which updates the themes of Night of the Living Dead into a meditation on climate change and American exceptionalism: “Anthropocene, live it up, give a fight / Shot to the heart, God bless America / Failed from the start, what are you waiting for?” Several of the songs on here are directly inspired by horror cinema, contrasting with the album’s gentle tone. ‘The Pillar of Souls’ is inspired by Hellraiser III, but the track reminded me most of Goblin’s twinkling, dreamlike soundtrack for the original Suspiria. However, where Suspiria’s music aims to feel as wild as it is hypnotic, Stevens and De Augustine use a similar sound palette to a muted, funerary effect.
Elsewhere, though, the album can fringe into baffling and even offensive territory. ‘Cimmerian Shade’, inspired by Silence of the Lambs, sees Stevens sounding out the pseudoscientific and highly transphobic term “autogynephilia” and completely undercutting the message of the rest of the track, which can theoretically be read as pro-trans: “I just wanted to change myself … Beauty resides where your spirit dwells”. But then, why put that statement in the mouth of Buffalo Bill? The lyrics may be deliberately rambling and free-roaming, but this can come at a cost: when the concept fails, it feels both overwrought and under-considered.
That’s not to say the album is without highs – ‘Back to Oz’ deserves heavy radio play for its gloriously catchy hook alone. The moment which brings the album together, though, is its closer ‘Lacrimae’, which brings together the wider themes of the album – religion, mortality, a sense of being lost and alone – with a finality to it that’s both beautiful and terrifying: “I saw your eyes burn in the moonlight […] Lord, why must this life be so cruel? / And shadowed in the gloom?”
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