Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine: A Beginner’s Mind review – exceptional, empathic call to arms for the broken

Fri, Sep 24, 2021, 05:00

   
     

Album:
A Beginner's Mind

Artist:
Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine

Label:
Asthmatic Kitty

Genre:
Rock

Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine brought the Zen Buddhist concept of “shoshin” to bear on this collaborative work that uses cinema as a touchstone, referencing films as diverse as The Wizard of Oz, Point Break and The Silence of the Lambs; the film-song interplay acts as a skeleton, but this record is really an exploration of how we cope in a broken world.

Reach Out encourages us to use history to stand against the empty posturing of the 21st century: “I would rather be devoured than be broken”. Complemented by acoustic impulses and electronica flourishes, it is both defiant and lovely. Lady Macbeth in Chains takes us into a joyful space, then onwards to the yellow-brick tambourine rush of Back to Oz. The celestial searching of The Pillars of Soul is codified in You Give Death a Bad Name, with its discordant logic, eerie harmonies, sloping guitar and lushly realised drums.

Stevens and De Augustine’s voices chase each other to resolve a central conflict, asking us to see “lessons in metaphors” and to “drink from the holy ghost”. The title song, with its affecting piano melody and sense that “life was just a new way to die”, brilliantly prefaces the lonely guitar of Olympus, which again references Oz (“there’s no place like home”), identifying patterns, not only of our individual lives, but of civilizations.

Lady Macbeth in Chains takes us into a joyful space, then onwards to the yellow-brick tambourine rush of Back to Oz

The meditative piano of Murder and Crime foregrounds the philosophical question “where does everything go when everything’s gone?”, which in turn anchors the elegant (This is) The Thing, with its theme of loss of innocence – reaching back to Stevens’s devastating Fourth of July – and its stark and surprisingly comforting acknowledgment that we’re all going to die.

This record is about something just as fundamental, putting the flesh back on the skeleton. “Shall we all talk paternal?” we are asked. on the guitar-led It’s Your Own Body and Mind. Lost in the World is all cosmic nostalgia and the wry Fictional California makes surviving the fallacy of the American dream sound positively aspirational.

Cimmerian Shade, with its hazy sonic wash and references to Greek mythology and autogynephilia, provides apposite allusions, harnessing the kaleidoscopic nature of this record. These references are at once historic and modern, as on the folk-song-meets-wall-of-sound Lacrimae, which takes its title from Latin (roughly translating to “tearful”).

In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway wrote that “the world breaks every one”. This exceptional, empathic record reshapes that idea into a call to arms for the broken, and the devoured, so that a kind of purity might yet triumph over dissolution.