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Portrait by Daniel Anum Jasper, via Asthmatic Kitty
Every week we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is the new collaborative record from Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine, A Beginner’s Mind.
Sometimes the premise of an album overwhelms the music itself. Although not complicated, the context to Sufjan Stevens’ latest record — a collaborative album with fellow Asthmatic Kitty artist Angelo De Augustine, A Beginner’s Mind — is extensive. Stevens and De Augustine isolated themselves in a residency of sorts in upstate New York in a friend’s cabin, watching films at night and writing songs loosely inspired by the movies the following day. Those films range wildly from 1950’s All About Eve to 2004’s Bring It On Again, with a little Hellraiser III and The Silence of the Lambs in between.
The writing process was truly collaborative: “They wrote in tandem — one person writing a verse, the other a chorus, churning out chord progressions and lyrical tapestries willy-nilly, often finishing each other’s sentences in the process,” according to a statement. That “willy-nilly” aspect of the album’s creation relates directly to its title, which translates the Zen Buddhist concept of shoshin: an attitude of openness and lack of preconceptions toward a subject regardless of expertise, approaching study like a beginner.
Despite the obligatory Stevens’ gut-punch harmonies and atmospheric emotional landmines, A Beginner’s Mind feels contrived at times, perhaps the inevitable conclusion of such a collage of influences. It’s still a beautiful listen and intellectually engaging, tackling plenty of philosophically heavy topics, but lyrically doesn’t hold a candle to the blazing honesty of Carrie & Lowell or De Augustine’s more personal Tomb.
Stevens’ and De Augustine’s voices blend impeccably — a choral feat when it could have sounded like an album of dueling duets — which leads to a soothing and smooth, if monotonous, experience. There’s an undeniable callback to duos like Simon & Garfunkel and a timelessness to harmonies like this. The tracks where it’s easier to differentiate who is singing, however, are the true high points of the record, standing out from the too-perfect unity of the rest of the album.
One of these moments, the Stevens-led “(This Is) The Thing,” is closer to his perspective, while still addressing the concept of narration directly: “This is the thing about fiction / How everything feeds on its paranoia” he sings. (The personal connection is palpable here, as Stevens explained to AnOther, “The first movie that I ever saw that left a lasting impression on me was The Thing. Because I watched it when I was seven. It’s still one of my favourite films to this day.”) Other standouts by merit of vocal independence are “Lady Macbeth In Chains,” with a ’70s harmony drawing out “chains” into four syllables at the end of the chorus, and Clash of the Titans-inspired “Olympus.”
Similar to the vocal standouts, the tracks that draw the most attention serve as palate cleansers from Stevens’ and De Augustine’s standard acoustic guitar. The moments when instrumentation swells, including mournful keys (“The Pillar Of Souls”) or more driving percussion (the almost-funky “Back To Oz”) break up the familiar soft folk sonics. But there’s comfort in the familiar, and fans of both Stevens and De Augustine will be able to take refuge in a project in line with both discographies, and obviously imbued with real friendship. Old fan or new, you can heed the record’s title: Approach it with a beginner’s mind, and it’ll make you feel something in the process.
Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based writer and the Editor of VMP. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.
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