The name of Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine’s new collaborative LP is A Beginner’s Mind, a reference to a Zen Buddhist concept – shoshin – that inspired the duo during the album’s month-long writing session at a friend’s cabin in upstate New York. There’s also plenty of references to film – even an homage to director Jonathan Demme. But, though De Augustine – like Stevens, an Asthmatic Kitty artist – wrote the lyrics to the title song and performed alongside Stevens admirably throughout, much of the record seems to revolve around Stevens’ reckoning with fame, misfortune, and scripted tragedy.
The LP, yes, is a collaboration in the sense that two people are writing and performing. And there are songs that ring of two people’s folksy/prose-poesy views of America and innocence lost. But De Augustine ends up, as he does on the road, as a kind of opener to Stevens’ musical house of pain. It’s an interesting if occasionally uneven, journey. But the LP’s 14 songs, sometimes aiming at an earlier version of Stevens’ body of work, indeed will be devoured by those who see Stevens in a mold grander than his increasingly distant 50 states run.
The road markers and tea leaves are hidden if such a word even could be used, right out in plain sight. “And I held myself as something of an innovation / I would rather be devoured than be broken,” Stevens sings on the beatific opener, “Reach Out”, all whispery incantations. The song’s finest detail might be the way the carefully tuned recording allows us to hear the difference in Stevens’ and De Augustine’s fingers sliding around the fretboard of their guitars. “Now covered in chains / My skin is ablated with bleeding incision,” he opines, darkly to the point of the macabre, on “The Pillar of Souls”. “And still, life remains, my cadaver imprisoned / As you shall retain me and raise me from hell.”
Elsewhere, Stevens gets more explicit and specific about his grievances and tackles the trappings of celebrity, a kind of constructed persona owned by the masses. “Once in a lifetime you’re a star / A circus of light falling apart,” he offers in the bleak but pop-perky “Lady Macbeth in Chains”. “Just as the flame is on the reservoir / The darkness arises so much brighter.” Or there’s the way he puts it, more resolutely from the artist’s perspective, on “Back to Oz”: “All my life was calling / All my dreams were buried away / You love me but you don’t know me / In due time you’ll throw it away.”
Stevens already has been called out for making the shift from full-hearted patriotic emo-kitsch (again, 50 states) to a kind of jaded eye toward American normatives. After all, this is the guy who sang, “I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe / Don’t do to me what you did to America” on 2020’s The Ascension. But here, his lament about the radiating energy of broken things has a decidedly autobiographical tone.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Stevens’ muse has always inspired him to write feathery alt-folk that mines the soul for tortured trappings; he’s just developed a thicker and thicker skin for treading through the bullshit expectations. On A Beginner’s Mind, he’s not offering the epic-scope electronica of his work with his mentor/father, Lowell Brams – he’s offering up the namesake, the thing for which he is most known. But that comes at a price.
Gone is the suffering and loneliness-tinged nostalgia of Carrie & Lowell. Here, Stevens is taking aim. De Augustine is an ample partner in crime, but Stevens’ domain is this catchy alt-folk that soothes the ear while placing bitter contents below the surface. God bless him. Despite all the requests to write New Jersey or California, he’s still emoting, and he’s still got something to say. A worthy, if occasionally over-ripe, outing. — Justin Vellucci, PopMatters, Oct. 6, 2021