Two Cinephiles Drinking Bailey's From A Shoe
Describing Sufjan Stevens' music as 'beautiful' is hardly a revelation, but it's unerringly true. There are few songwriters in history that have provided as arrestingly stunning creations as those found huddled together on masterworks like Carrie & Lowell, Illinois, Seven Swans and beyond. Now, after the remarkable ambience of Convocations (and 2020's return to electronically-tinged musicianship with The Ascension) Stevens has returned to the soft pleasures of acoustic tones and vulnerable vocal deliveries, but he hasn't done it alone. A Beginner's Mind arrives as another grand success in Sufjan Stevens' collaborative discography, this time partnering up with Californian Angelo De Augustine for the creation of what is undoubtedly one of the best albums of 2021. It would be easy to overlook De Augustine's role in this project, and perhaps I've already been guilty of doing so, but this is every bit a collaboration, the fusion of two creative minds into a project of mesmerising design.
It is certainly true that both Stevens and De Augustine's vocals overlap, to put it lightly. Embracing whisper-quiet sung performances, in sharing hushed words across the album's runtime it becomes difficult to distinguish precisely where each singer stops and the other begins unless concentrating with substantial effort. Perhaps this could be an issue for some, but in the case of A Beginner's Mind, the album floats across with a 'singular' voice.
When harmonising with one another, their voices are so similar that it often sounds like a doubled vocal track and while this might not do the less-celebrated De Augustine any favours in being easily identified, it absolutely gives the album a certain mythic quality. Like the Medusa that (appropriately) demands the gaze of all listeners engrossed in its bizarre cover-art, Sufjan and Angelo have arrived together like another of ancient Greece's iconic storybook monsters: a multi-headed hydra, inseparable and co-existent.
Deviations into ancient mythology aside, when turning to the music of A Beginner's Mind, this album may have the most immaculate vocal performances of 2021. As the wonderful 'Reach Out' opens the record, hearing De Augustine's "now" flutter into perfect tremolo stood out as a declaration of the beauty that was to come. Inspired from a period of cohabitation in the woods of New York State, devouring cinematic treasures while committing eye-wateringly serene performances to tape, the experience of listening to this album is one akin to breezing through a friend's DVD collection, slowly accumulating dust and nostalgic significations. From the rainbow of The Wizard of Oz, to the moth of The Silence of the Lambs, to wistful Spike Lee quotations ("She's gotta have it!"), A Beginner's Mind is ultimately an incredibly charming exploration of brief glimpses at films selected seemingly at random, but somehow endlessly endearing and fascinating too.
The music is firmly on the Michigan / Tomb end of the scale rather than the bombastic bleep-bloops of Age of Adz, and so the wonderful timbres of plucked strings find themselves warmly received. But, perhaps more than I've ever heard on a project from Sufjan, the binary of electronic/folk that tend to characterise his work into two neat piles here feels increasingly collapsed. 'Lady Macbeth in Chains' descends into processed beats and glitchy-white noise, 'Back To Oz' shifts into one of my favourite electric guitar solos of the year, and the Buffalo Bill-inspired 'Cimmerian Shade' finds itself enveloped by these colossal Vangelis-esque swells. It's an album that has pushed Stevens' interests together into an extraordinary blend, and taken the overwhelmingly folky Angelo De Augustine along for the ride too.
It's a bold statement, but I think 'Olympus' might be one of the best songs Sufjan Stevens has ever made, and undeniably my favourite moment from the LP. Recency bias and my adoration of Ray Harryhausen disregarded, there is something so overpowering about its synthesis of an angelic chorus, sparkling sleighbells and the guttural weight of its bass and acoustic guitar. I am self-aware as a fan of over-prosaic indie-folk lyricism, but when the two singer's connect to describe:
"Oh show me the flow of my life,
Bound by Acrisius bronzed from the skylight.
Seeking the oracle's eyes in the night with a sigh
Serifos greets us with moments of silence."
I can't really do anything but accept the genius of the words. It's all so effortless in its delivery, despite clearly being the product of two singer/songwriters trying harder than they have any need to. But this effort finds itself imbued into every second of the album. There are no low-points, no moments of missed potential or skippable tracks. Particularly in its final quarter the melody of 'Lost in the World' stands out as a shock, far removed from the accessible tear-jerkers that often populate their music, here Stevens and De Augustine interpolate a wonderfully archaic melody line more akin to a dark interpretation of Fleet Foxes' 'Bedouin Dress' rather than a 'Death With Dignity' part 2.
In fact, the album's whole last act might be its strongest run, and I can't remember the last time I've said that about a record. In a landscape where albums have to compete so aggressively for your attention, LPs increasingly seem to front-load their strongest moments to grasp their listeners. It's refreshing then, that with A Beginner's Mind, its brilliance seems inexhaustible, capable of holding moments of genius in reserve, shocking listeners with just how good every second of this album is.
It's an astonishing album, constantly shifting in subtle variations. It's constantly dynamic, largely steering clear of accusations of 'one-noteism' that has occasionally been thrown towards this songwriter, but remains able to carve a specific style out for itself amongst the halls of Sufjan Stevens' strongest work. Like Age of Adz, Carrie & Lowell, and Illinois, A Beginner's Mind has a distinctly identifiable sound - adjacent to Stevens' best albums, but spliced together in a sensational marriage of cinephilic references and outrageously soothing musicianship. It is one of 2021's few truly unmissable records, and we cannot recommend it enough.
- 9.2 -
'Reach Out', 'Olympus', 'Fictional California'
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