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  • Genre:

    Folk/Country / Rock

  • Label:

    Asthmatic Kitty

  • Reviewed:

    September 30, 2021

With a collection of gentle duets inspired by great-to-iffy movies, the veteran songwriter and protégé uncover mythic resonances and ugly truths.

There’s a minor subgenre of pop concept albums inspired by movies—not soundtrack albums, but records that explicitly take vivid cinematic imagery as lyrical inspiration. On one side is, say, JAY-Z’s American Gangster, sparked by Jay’s obsession with a single movie. On the other end is something more self-consciously abstract, like the U2 and Brian Eno collaboration Original Soundtracks 1, a compilation of themes to imaginary movies created by jamming in the studio over film clips.

A Beginner’s Mind, the new collaboration from Sufjan Stevens and songwriter Angelo De Augustine, takes a substantively different approach: There’s no unifying concept beyond the pair’s omnivorous channel-surfing, and they don’t attempt an overtly cinematic musical style. Instead, they view film almost through the lens of the original Surrealists, who would go to the theater not to watch a complete film, but to catch bits and pieces of multiple movies, absorbing an out-of-context stream of images rather than a coherent plot.

Several songs draw from certified Criterion classics like Wings of Desire (“Reach Out”) and All About Eve (“Lady Macbeth in Chains”), but Sufjan notes in an interview that the duo were specifically drawn to titles that are in some way “problematic,” whether maligned sequels like Bring It On Again (“Fictional California”), discarded genre movies like Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (“The Pillar of Souls”) or films that have become a magnet for criticism like The Silence of the Lambs (“Cimmerian Shade”). Not every title cited finds its way into the lyrics directly; some serve more as guiding stars. Like the bromantic surfers Johnny Utah and Bodhi in Point Break, the film that sparked the title track, Sufjan and Angelo are riders on the storm, circling each other in search of a unified wave.

Thanks to their gently intertwined voices, most name-drops or direct references, like the shout-out to stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen on “Olympus,” don’t feel forced. The chorus of “It’s Your Own Body and Mind” nods to Spike Lee’s debut She’s Gotta Have It, but could just as easily be a generic turn of phrase. The lyrical imagery is often more mythic than narrative or visual, in line with Sufjan’s well-documented religious and spiritual concerns. “The Pillar of Souls” casts the gory quest of Clive Barker’s Cenobites to find pleasure within the desecration of flesh as a rapturous, twinkling hymn.

Moments of gentle guitar plucking and arcing falsetto give the impression of classic Sufjan, and the loosely conceptual nature of the record is a thread running throughout his discography. But left-field experimentation is as inherent to his work as careful lyricism, and an album inspired by film offers a showcase for Sufjan and Angelo’s talents for sound design as much as songwriting. The soft strums and twinkling percussion of “Lady Macbeth in Chains” give way to a drum machine breakdown, while “Back to Oz” is built on a defined backbeat and psychedelic guitar solo, lending it a more hook-oriented jangle-pop sensibility than the piano-driven solace found in other moments of the album. As much as there is a sense of stillness and a meditative hush, there's also a grand sweep—Sufjan and Angelo form a choir of two, their eerily similar voices turning harmony into a kind of natural reverb. It’s often difficult to tell which vocalist is which, complicating the vantage point of an album so invested in perspective and individual identity.

A Beginner’s Mind strays furthest into “problematic” territory with “Cimmerian Shade,” a prayer delivered from the perspective of Buffalo Bill of The Silence of the Lambs. But even more than a fictional character with a deeply complicated relationship to trans audiences, what stands out most is the song’s use of the word “autogynephilia,” a debunked but still damaging pseudoscientific theory, propagated by anti-trans bigots, which essentially dismisses transness as a sexual fetish instead of a valid identity. As a trans woman, it’s almost impossible for me to approach the character of Buffalo Bill or a concept like autogynephilia in a vacuum—when I came out as trans on Twitter, one of the few outwardly hateful comments I received was from a stranger who responded to my very vulnerable post with a mocking photo of Buffalo Bill. For me and many other trans people, Buffalo Bill is not a character so much as a specter that haunts us, a symbol of both direct harassment and structural oppression.

Sufjan has long been fascinated with serial killers, and A Beginner’s Mind makes the unseemly, misunderstood antagonists of horror movies into something of a motif: the tormented souls of Hellraiser III on “The Pillars of Soul,” the zombies of George Romero on “You Give Death a Bad Name.” It can be empowering to reclaim cinematic villains, especially when so many are historically queer-coded, but Buffalo Bill isn’t just any old horror-movie monster—they signify real and material forms of hate. That A Beginner’s Mind casts a character representative of so much trauma in a lineup of many different stories reveals the overlapping realities inhabited by trans and cis populations. For cis people, Silence of the Lambs is just another movie, and “autogynephilia” just another fake Greek word in an outdated psychiatric encyclopedia; for trans people, they’re cultural weapons.

Though the end result walks a tricky line, a song like “Cimmerian Shade” at the very least seems to come from a place of good intentions. Like Bodhisattva, the dreamboat Zen poet warrior played by Patrick Swayze in Point Break, Sufjan and Angelo find unorthodox influence in Buddhist teachings, interpreting spiritual principles in their own way. The Zen concept of the “beginner’s mind” is that dewy newness found in a green and enthusiastic pupil, a person who’s open to everything because they know nothing. It’s a concept that’s particularly resonant on a collaborative album between a younger songwriter and a prolific veteran. Through reinterpretation and re-examination, Sufjan and Angelo strive not just to understand others, but to better understand themselves. As Sufjan sings on the John Carpenter-indebted “(This Is) The Thing,” “This is the thing about people/You never really know what’s inside/Somewhere in the soul there’s a secret.” Music allows for the possibility of stepping outside your own sense of self to better understand another’s identity. When they sing in harmony, converging together to the point where one becomes almost indistinguishable from the other, Sufjan and Angelo become a duet of pure voice without the hindrance of material flesh or form.

Buy: Rough Trade

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