Review of “A Beginner’s Mind”: An Album of Poetic Topics, Piano and Pretty Guitars

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Illustration by Bridget Rios

Kieran Galpin

Contributing Writer

Sufjan Stevens and Angelo de Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind. Released Sept. 24, 2021

Rating: 4/5

Favourite Tracks: “Olympus,” “Cimmerian Shade,” and “(This is) the Thing.”

Angelo de Augustine and Sufjan Stevens refused to let the pandemic stymie their creative process. Released at the end of September, “A Beginner’s Mind” drives forward poetic, thought-provoking themes with an ethereal folk sound.

Living together in upstate New York, the folk/indie/pop duo watched films and wrote music together. Thus, “A Beginner’s Mind” was born. As they worked together, they realised their love of cinema was impacting their music, driving them to write a film-inspired album. 

The album’s lyrics, which are clearly film-based, create a familiar musical soundscape. The album utilizes the soft, folky sounds of Augustine and Stevens — breathy vocals and sweet guitars, with a hint of the electronic sound that Stevens delved into on his album “Enjoy Your Rabbit.” The pair’s sound blends naturally, perhaps helped by Augustine’s suggestion that “neither of us have huge egos” and their shared belief that “collaboration needs to be a mutual, diplomatic experience.” And in contrast with edgy lyrical subjects, the dreamy, fantastical sounds of the album lull the listener into a somber escapism.

The pair’s sound blends naturally, perhaps helped by Augustine’s suggestion that ‘neither of us have huge egos’

A prime example of this is the song “Cimmerian Shade,” which is written from the perspective of Buffalo Bill, the antagonist of “The Silence of the Lambs, and deals in existential, metaphysical topics. Buffalo Bill questions who he is and why he was created in the way he was. This blueprint is common in “A Beginner’s Mind.” The songs are often written from a character’s persona, and they often take on metaphysical questions.

While “Cimmerian Shade” is a more typical sad-but-pretty folk song, the brighter piano of “(This is) the Thing,” with its catchy hook and ‘ooh-ing’ backing vocals, give the song a pop flavor which discords with the lyrical expressions of paranoia, confusion and loss of innocence: “this is the thing about evil/ You’ll never really know where you’ll find it.” Equally, “Back to Oz” has a catchy chorus and a fun electric guitar solo, while discussing change and love for something which doesn’t exist anymore. This is therefore not an album lacking variation; Augustine and Stevens toy with their blueprint, giving the listener new points of interest.

By using the perspectives of fictional characters, the album manages to contemplate modernity’s issues without being preachy, cliché, or condescending. Using cultural references in songs like  “Back to Oz,” “Lady Macbeth,” and “Buffalo Bill” draws these fictional places and movie characters from the collective imagination into a modern, interpretive context, allowing these characters to weigh on profound debates. 

By using the perspectives of fictional characters, the album manages to contemplate modernity’s issues without being preachy, cliché or condescending.

Can “Buffalo Bill” speak to our experience of gender? Can his plea to be “fixed”’ by Johnathan Denme, the film’s director, speak to our wish for God to fix us? Or can “Lady Macbeth In Chains” remind us of the challenges of fame and monetary success, especially as a woman? “A Beginner’s Mind” is no doubt a mix of emotions, traversing poetic topics with pretty guitars. The cover art is emblematic of this melting pot, depicting beauty, death, darkness, gender, mythology, fantasy, doom, surrealism, and hope. Somehow it melds together into one surreal image. Held together by familiar vocals and light instrumentals, the beauty of the album lies in ethereal escapism, its lyrics telling listeners what exactly it is that we’re escaping from.

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