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No indie 2000s playlist would be complete without a sampling from the extensive canon of Sufjan Stevens’ work — from the 22-track eccentric folk of “Illinois” to the matured and delicately emotional “Carrie & Lowell,” culminating in his 2017 appearances on the “Call Me By Your Name” soundtrack.
To top such an iconic breadth of work is no easy expectation. Following “Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon,” Stevens released a flood of music, both collaborative and solo, that delved into electronic instrumentations more than before but lacked the profound impact of his past works. His most recent release, “A Beginner’s Mind,” is a collaborative album with Angelo de Augustine, the rising California-based indie artist who has released three albums since 2014. De Augustine’s and Stevens’ styles feel akin to each other — mostly dominated by carefully plucked guitar strings and whispering vocals — yet De Augustine distinguishes himself by cherishing the playfulness of pop melodies with a fresh yet mature tone of lightness.
The result is an album that beautifully complements each artist’s past monumental works while pushing both to a previously unexplored sound featuring electric guitar, fuller production, and dynamic song structures.
The album opens with the careful acoustic build up of “Reach Out,” which previews much of the album’s characteristics: Musically, it swings from the artists’ iconic minimal production to a sparkling crescendo that mirrors the album’s sonic contrast both across and within tracks. Conceptually, it lays the lyrical foundation for the album as it turns to past generations for help with life’s slow, unjust torment. As he sings, “I would rather be devoured than be broken,” Stevens succinctly echoes the album’s overwhelming fear of having to be patient through pain.
Lyrically, the album draws upon the premises of the artists’ favorite movies. The songs are not merely replicas of the films’ plots, though: “We wanted to make them our own, appropriate them, and then come up with new narratives and new characters and new perspectives,” Stevens said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.
The movie references provide a familiar touchstone for the album, which aren’t disjointed due to the common themes tied throughout — “Pillar of Souls” builds off of the morbidity of “Reach Out,” which continues in “Murder and Crime.”
The majority of tracks are effective in that way — utilizing the movie-framework to craftily tell new narratives with the enigmatic, poetic lyrics of which Stevens and De Augustine are both experienced. Not all tracks achieve this, though, awkwardly sticking out from the rest of the album. “Fictional California” is a clear model of this, with a chorus reliant on painfully cliché symbolism (“Open the light to the darkness”) that makes it difficult to listen earnestly.
Lyrics aside, “A Beginner’s Mind” is in many ways a sonic feat. “Pillar of Souls” is an unmistakable highlight of the album, where eerie repetitive pianos are supplemented with shimmering production that smash into the chorus’s dark, production-heavy chant; the subtle yet pivotal guitar outro that unravels is an unpredictable and satisfying conclusion. Both artists’ hushed vocal deliveries seamlessly thrive in the unusual context of increased production — the perfect balance of experimentation and familiarity. “You Give Death a Bad Name” succeeds in the same light — the Stevens-De Augustine acoustic guitar staple is built upon with sharp electric guitars and forefronted percussion that drop out three-fourths of the way through for salient distorted vocals and synths. This is an example of experimentation done thoughtfully and genuinely.
Stevens and De Augustine deliver on their quintessential gentle acoustic tracks as well. “Murder and Crime” rings of the triumphs in “Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon” — while unlikely to have the same worldwide reception, the song’s melody is no less magnificent: The swinging chorus slowly descends into a piano instrumental accompanied by melodic sighs that roll in like fog. Compared to other tracks, the minimal production is essential, as it allows the brilliance of the chorus to breathe on its own. The title track accomplishes the same effort, offering a necessary break from the first few production-heavy tracks that introduce the album.
Some tracks are deficient in the wonder of both the experimental and the simple tracks, though — falling somewhere in between. “It’s Your Own Body and Mind” and “Olympus” lack the venturesome production of other tracks on the album that both surprise and deliver, yet also lack the depth of melody to carry such simplicity and repetition in execution. The resulting tracks pass by slowly; the recipe of experimentation and familiarity in composition does not always satisfy the thirst for compelling music.
“A Beginner’s Mind” showcases that the experimental risk is worth the shocking reward, even if the cost is an inconsistency in the cohesive quality of the record. Although created by a pairing of a veteran musician and a budding artist, both Stevens and De Augustine assume a beginner’s mind — approaching the record with wide eyes for new possibilities, propagating promising new horizons for the futures of both artists’ work.
— Staff writer Chloe M. Becker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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