By Adrian Woods, Contributor
[Asthmatic Kitty Records; 2021]
Key tracks: “Reach Out”, “Back To Oz”, “You Give Death A Bad Name”
Sufjan Stevens is one of the biggest indie-folk figures of the 2000s and 2010s, and he has released some of the most essential pieces of indie folk music within that time. It was a bit of a shock to see him drop his second album of the year, A Beginner’s Mind, just four months after his last album Convocations. The album is not only a collaboration with singer/songwriter Angelo De Augustine, but also is intriguing in that the premise of every song on the album is inspired by movies. There are artists who reference the same director or genre throughout their discography, such as Wu-Tang Clan referencing Kung-Fu movies, or Logic referencing Quinton Tarantino. Every track on A Beginner’s Mind has a different film attached to it, from action films like Mad Max, and Clash Of The Titans, to horror films like The Thing and “The Silence Of The Lambs.
Sufjan and Angelo really nail this premise. Their vocals work together well on each track, and the album would be missing something without Angelo’s backing vocals. The gentle guitar strums that have followed Sufjan throughout the majority of his career are here and they still sound great, especially on songs like “Reach Out” and “Murder And Crime”. Both of these songs start off mostly acoustic before a rush of instrumentals softly enter. In “Reach Out”, bells and maracas shine and in “Murder and Crime” soft flutes and merciful piano break the track’s only acoustic streak in the song.
The percussion is another highlight on the album, and on the song “Fictional California”, percussion is used sparingly and with precision, making an intentional listen worthwhile. As a whole, the tracks flow well. Each song feels necessary, and even an additional interlude would feel out of place on such a well-paced project. That being said, with the premise of each song being inspired by a different film, some tracks lack conceptual depth in the sense that they don’t strongly evoke images or themes from the referenced movies. Though this could be intentional, some of the songs sound like they could be on other Sufjan Stevens album, such as Carrie & Lowell or Seven Swans, from conceptual and instrumental standpoints. It’s not necessarily a horrible thing––many Sufjan songs sound alike and are great, but with this premise, perhaps the envelope could have been pushed or differentiated more.
Overall, A Beginner’s Mind adds to the great musical legacy of Sufjan Stevens, and provides a great introduction to Angelo De Augustine. Is this album as great as Illinois or A Sun Came? No, but I feel that people will remember this album greatly with it’s interesting concept and the inclusion of another talented vocalist.