- 24 Sep 21
Sufjan Stevens goes back to the movies – in deeply affecting fashion.
Let me tell you of the days of high adventure! When Sufjan Stevens established himself as one of the great alternative pop voices of his era with Illinois in 2005, few will have suspected that he would one day end up chronicling, via the medium of acoustic folk, his love of John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian. Or of John Carpenter’s Lovecraftian classic The Thing.
Or that he would do so while harking back emphatically to the “classic Sufjan” sound of filagree vocals and painterly guitars. Yet that is what he has wrought through this engaging, raw and deliriously understated collaboration with California songwriter Angelo De Augustine (a long time signing to Steven’s Asthmatic Kitty label).
A Beginner’s Mind started as a grand concept. With the lockdown stretching ever on, the duo retreated to upstate New York, with the plan of watching films every evening and of then writing a song in response to their viewing experience the following morning.
Steven’s most high profile intersection with cinema to date was as composer of the soundtrack to gay romance Call Me By Your Name. But clearly his cinema tastes are broader than mannered art-house. “I just want you to love me, I just wanted to change myself/Beauty resides where your spirit dwells,” he sings on ‘Cimmerian Shade’, a heart-swelling dirge equal parts inspired by Conan (the barbarian warrior being, of course, Cimmerian) and, so say the liner notes, Silence of the Lambs (the lyrics are from the perspective of crazed killer Buffalo Bill).
There is also ‘Back To Oz’ –a tribute to The Wizard Of Oz –and the instrumental ‘You Give Death a Bad Name’, which came to the pair after they binged on George A Romero’s The Evil Dead.
The contrast between Steven’s passion for b-movies and his mannered writing – between shlock and awesome – is striking. And a less accomplished artist might have run aground on those contradictions. Stevens and De Augustine, though, have produced a delicate and plaintive record that harks back to the mannered folk-pop with which Stevens was synonymous before moving on to ambient experimentation (this year’s Convocations) and downcast synth musings (2020’s The Ascension). If only all lockdown projects were as lovely.
8/10 stars. Key track: ‘Back To Oz'.
Listen to A Beginners Mind by Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine below.