From The Fifty States Project, to songs about the eight planets, to a single about ‘90s U.S. figure skater Tonya Harding, Sufjan Stevens projects have always been thematic and verging on the chronically ekphrastic. The Detroit-born songwriter constantly references historical panoramas, civic and literary figures and mythological narratives in his songs. Steven’s new album A Beginner’s Mind is in this same referential vein, a collection of songs written with label mate Angelo De Augustine inspired by stories in movies. The duo spent a month-long sabbatical holed up in a friend’s New York cabin. They watched movies at night and wrote songs the next day in response to those narratives. Yet, as their lyricism unfolds, it’s unclear to listeners exactly which movies they are referencing. Instead, the songs are more of a catalyst for philosophical musings on the experiences and the internal tangents these movies inspire. Despite its reliance on the two songwriters’ comfort with the idioms and syntaxes of folk, their compositional strength is still as strong as ever.
The instantly recognizable familiarity of Stevens’s sound does not distract from the beauty and the intimacy of the music; each song has a unique cadence with something to offer to any fan of Stevens or De Augustine. With so many different styles and strong compositions, it’s not hard to find “your” tune — the one you fall in love with and listen to on repeat. The album’s organization makes it easy to lose yourself in each section as each run of songs becomes nearly addicting to listen to. Easy to start and harder to stop, A Beginner’s Mind will win over any folk listener.
As soon as the guitar strums the opener to “Reach Out,” it’s clear Stevens is returning to a style of folk that was a staple in his earlier discography, reminiscent of the Fifty States Project albums like Illinois or other projects like Carrie & Lowell. The song collapses into harmonizing whispers and reverberating chimes, setting the tone for the rest of the album: explosive chamber instrumentals, delicate lyrics and soulful vocals.
This same energy is carried into “Lady Macbeth in Chains” as the song sways between its chilling verses and ear worm-melodic chorus. Perhaps one of the most popular tracks from the album, “Back to Oz,” rings in its haunting guitar chords against the signature melancholy present in most of Stevens’s songs, but with a more soul-stirring and almost psychedelic twist. Just look at the music video for the track to see how far they’ve taken the concept of a young girl and her animal companion’s bad lucid dream.
Although inspired by “The Wizard of Oz” and the dark fantasy sequel “Return to Oz,” as seen in the cover art for the single and the official list of movies Stevens’s label Asthmatic Kitty released for the album, its lyrics muddle the film. The lyric “Back to Oz” is perhaps the only direct reference to the movies, and a new story is told with poignant lines like: “Back to Oz / Where I was born at the start / Don’t be my last call / Do you mind that I’m falling apart?”
Movies are purely a framework for Stevens and De Augustine to take as their own. They rework the narrative, reimagining characters and recreating the story with their own emotions and experiences. By taking that movie and writing a song that resembles the original piece but is undoubtedly “theirs,” the imagery and nostalgia are repurposed into something new and far more expressive.
A movie nerd might be able to recognize the references and the imagery hidden between the lines of their joint songwriting, but prior knowledge isn’t necessary to enjoy the album. Instead, you can just press play and let these sweet, angelic melodies wash over you, as you might with any other Stevens or De Augustine album.
The cover of A Beginner’s Mind depicts a Medusa head on a naked human body, with angel wings and a subtle moth resting on her chin — a potential nod to “Silence of the Lambs,” which Stevens has referenced before in his work and again here in “Cimmerian Shade.” Ghanian artist Daniel Anum Jasper was commissioned to make artwork for the project, hand painting various versions of the cover art based on photos, visual cues and inspirations sent by Stevens, including Jonathan Demme (“Silence of the Lambs”) whom the album is dedicated to.
In the ’80s and ’90s, and even today, Jasper and other Ghanian poster artists were tasked with creating movie posters based on little information. Ranging from comical depictions of the characters to vibrant expressive revisions of the movies, the artists added their own images and flair to the movie posters in order to capture buzz, curiosity and intensity of the flicks showing.
This practice is present in Stevens and De Augustine’s inspiration for the music itself, which made Jasper the perfect artist to depict this reimagining of movies. The art becomes a collage of expression that reimagines the film in the eyes of the poster maker. And by taking their memories and impressions of movies and twisting them into their own visions, the songwriters are telling their own stories through new eyes, as the album’s description on Bandcamp states: “The underlying objective was empathy and openness, absent of judgment: to observe what is pure and good — or seemingly dark and villainous — with the eyes of a child.”
This collection of songs is both a return to the old and a recreation in new light, whether that be renditions of classic tales like “Hellraiser III” or Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” or the complex stories and emotions of the songwriters themselves they recognize on the screen. Stevens’s ability to respond to fiction through lyricism is undeniable, but De Augustine’s strength as a writer shines too in the sensitivity and subtle poeticism seen in songs of his 2019 work Tomb. Still, both songwriters immerse themselves, as well as the listener, in the love and soul of the characters within these films.
Stevens even returns to Call Me By Your Name’s “Mystery of Love” with a similar moving, emotional, lo-fi piece with “(This is) The Thing.” Its title clearly references John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” but with Stevens’s faint, emotive vocals and mesmerizing guitar plucking, it has no resemblance to the actual tone and setting of the movie. What’s left is the social paranoia of the original but told in a completely different context: a classic Sufjan Stevens folk song commenting on our anxieties and our fears of everyday living, which is especially strong after a year of pandemic induced second-guessing.
As we begin to transition out of such paranoid times, we are called to use these songs that look at the old and the familiar with new eyes as anthems for exploring a world tainted by fear. Using the memory and the recreation of films, Stevens and De Augustine are encouraging us to look at things in a new light. It’s easy to get wrapped up in Sufjan Stevens and his expansive discography, to look at A Beginner’s Mind and recognize his older styles of folk that are so prevalent in these compositions.
But isn’t that exactly the point they ring home by repurposing the stories of old movies? Yes, it calls to mind older Sufjan Stevens and the similar albums of Angelo De Augustine, but it is undoubtedly new and vibrant.
Daily Arts Writer Conor Durkin can be reached at email@example.com.