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Sufjan Stevens has been on a heavy musical trip lately. Last year’s album The Ascension confronted the violence of Trump’s America with glitchy, messy electronic songs, a repudiation of the indie-Americana style that he made his name playing in the 2000s. “I just got so sick of folk music,” he explained. It was followed by the monumental Convocations, a 49-track set of ambient instrumentals that came out earlier this year, which addressed the grief that the singer-songwriter experienced after his father’s death in 2020. He had no words for it: there was no singing on the album. He seemed to have become sick of the song format itself.
Next to these albums, A Beginner’s Mind is light relief. It pairs the prolific Stevens with Californian singer-songwriter Angelo De Augustine. The musical style reconnects him to the indie-folk sound from which he spoke of becoming estranged. Meanwhile, the concept — each song is inspired by a particular film — is reminiscent of whimsical projects from earlier in his career, like his one-time ambition to write an album about every US state.
The 14 songs were made during a month’s sojourn in upstate New York. The pair of musicians watched films in the evening and wrote together during the day. While the cinematic selection is scattershot, from existential meditation Lacrimae Rerum to trashy cheerleader comedy Bring It On Again, the musical style is consistent. Regardless of whether the inspiration is Mad Max’s outback survivalism (“Murder and Crime”) or Wings of Desire’s lyrical tale of loss and mourning in Berlin (“Reach Out”), gently interwoven patterns of acoustic guitars and breathy vocal harmonies are the default mode.
In “The Pillar of Souls”, Hellraiser III’s occult gore (“Drink the blood of my wine”) is turned into the ritual chant of an agreeable folk-pop songwriting retreat. “Olympus”, based on sword-and-sandal fantasy Clash of the Titans, moves from grand talk about oracles to the monumental personal significance of a first kiss. “You Give Death a Bad Name” uses zombie classic Night of the Living Dead to cast a disillusioned eye over contemporary US society, similar ground as that covered by Stevens in The Ascension.
There are glimpses of a bigger musical vision, like the heightened sense of psychological disintegration with which “Cimmerian Shade” concludes — a song provocatively sung from the point of view of the “Buffalo Bill” serial killer from The Silence of the Lambs. But mostly the music coasts by without fuss. Simon and Garfunkel and Elliott Smith are prominent lodestars.
Fans of Stevens’ earlier work will be gladdened by his prodigal-son return after his various experiments with electronic music. Collaborating with De Augustine in such a free-and-easy way also appears to have reined back the maximalist side of his imagination. Unlike Convocation, whose duration is longer than any of the films that the duo watched, A Beginner’s Mind lasts just over 40 minutes. But the album’s easy-going, unforced air carries a cost.
Stevens and De Augustine make for a well-matched duo; almost doppelgängers, in fact. But unlike the themes of doubleness that turn up in the films they watched — especially Bette Davis’s turn as a Broadway diva threatened by a younger rival in All About Eve, the jumping-off point for “Lady Macbeth in Chains” — the two musicians rarely develop any corresponding sense of dynamics in their own starring roles. The result robs these otherwise diverting songs of drama or tension. There is too much light relief: the album leaves less imprint on the films that inspired it than it might have done.
‘A Beginner’s Mind’ is released by Asthmatic Kitty Records