In spite of his reputation as a purveyor of emotive folk music, Sufjan Stevens’ discography defies classification. This summer, he released Convocations, an ambient five-disc behemoth about the death of his father. In 2020, he dipped his toes into the world of electronica with the campy, striking The Ascension. It seems that an uncrossable chasm opened up between the early days of Illinois and Carrie & Lowell and Stevens’ recent experimental trysts. However, Stevens and Angelo De Augustine’s collaborative album A Beginner’s Mind recaptures the soft indie-folk brilliance of the past, while also embarking on a euphoric odyssey of cinematic songwriting.
Each of the 14 tracks on the LP is inspired by a different film, incorporating the characters, plot and ethos of each movie into the songwriting in masterfully inventive ways. Except for Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” and the 1950 classic “All About Eve,” Stevens and Augustine largely source inspiration from distinctively lowbrow films.
Despite the eclectic mix of source material, the record’s lyricism never feels hackneyed, instead revealing a profound intimacy and resonance. There is a near-painterly quality to Stevens and Augustine’s writing — nearly every track is rife with lyrics that could easily be found etched into the base of a marble relief or inscribed in a book of poetry, but here they derive from the kind of blockbuster movie that your uncle probably still has on VHS.
The approach to songwriting on the album is fragmented, its allusions often taking a backseat in favor of unveiling lush interiorities. While the film influence lends the record a certain novelty and cohesion, their presence becomes increasingly understated as the record progresses, and Stevens and Augustine delve into more spiritual material. “Will you let yourself unwind/ Put your soul on the line/ Striving for a beginner’s mind,” Stevens sings on the title track, based on the 1991 surfer flick “Point Break.” The idea of “a beginner’s mind” originates in Buddhist doctrine, and refers to possessing an open mindset, free of cynicism. It’s an endearing tone-setter for the LP, which approaches each subject with empathy.
The record opens on a strong note with “Reach Out,” a soft piano arpeggio-studded track that broaches the topic of atomization, an apt theme to explore in the wake of COVID-19. The track aggregates Stevens’ and Augustine’s delicate harmonies with bells and soft guitars until the song converges in a wave of aural euphoria.
“Back to Oz” is similarly grounded in reality while retaining an air of whimsy brought on by the track’s corresponding film: the 1985 Disney project “Return to Oz.” Imbued with a potent sense of longing, listeners understand Oz as representing an untenable past relationship in Stevens’ life.
Inspired by “Night of the Living Dead,” the track “You Give Death a Bad Name” is another standout, using Stevens’ gauzy falsetto to construct an eerie, indescribable tableau. Like much of Stevens’ past discography, the track — as well as the entire album — is concerned with spirituality and religion. “Can you explain all our divided pain?/ What still remains after the rigor mortis,” Stevens’ hushed voice muses through the muted percussion and diffused plucky guitars. Here, Stevens and Augustine are at their most existential, exploring how people form shared identities within a disparate world.
A Beginner’s Mind is full of moments of immense depth and introspection. There is something touchingly universal about Stevens’ and Augustine’s lyricism as well as their resolute commitment to piecing elements of their own most beloved films, creating artistry carefully steeped in the desire to reconcile our humanity. Cinema is the perfect vehicle for such an endeavor.
Susan Sontag writes: “Cinema began in wonder, the wonder that reality can be transcribed with such immediacy. All of cinema is an attempt to perpetuate and to reinvent that sense of wonder.” Stevens and Augustine expertly encapsulate this wonder on A Beginner’s Mind, a record that has solidified its place among the best of the year.