By Adam Hogg
A certain generation of music fans knows of indie-folk and electronica artist Sufjan Stevens as ‘the guy who made the song for the film Call Me By Your Name’. Of course, Mystery of Love – among other Stevens songs appearing on the soundtrack – is a gorgeous piece of Grammy-nominated acoustic songwriting, and the song which first drew me towards the artist. Yet, such a view is far too reductive for an artist as consistently great and influential as Stevens. Recently, Stevens has also embarked on journeys in electronic and ambient music with his works The Ascension and Convocations, respectively, all released under his music label, Asthmatic Kitty.
Released on September 24th, Stevens’ new album, A Beginner’s Mind – made in collaboration with label-mate and personal friend Angelo de Augustine – however, sees a return to the lusciously arranged indie-folk he first made his mark with. A warmth truly pervades every corner of A Beginner’s Mind, as Stevens and de Augustine, strip-back the most grandeur aspects of early albums, namely Illinois and Michigan, both conceptually and musically. U.S. state history is replaced with the influence of film; the two artists watched movies every day while making the album in up state New York. On first listen, this may not be evident – with the exceptions of plainly-stated references in song titles, such as Back to Oz. Stevens and de Augustine take snapshots of moments, emotions and themes within each film from which sprawling, empathetic visions are born. What the album is not, therefore, is a collection of detached soundtrack tracks; it is, rather, accessible without much thought of the subtextual influences, and is better for this.
In the instance of the track Cimmerian Shade, Stevens and de Augustine take on the voice of Buffalo Bill from the film The Silence of the Lambs. They sing, ‘fix it all, Jonathan Demme’ over gently plucked guitar, bell and string arrangements, begging the director to make the audience love him and for him to love himself, reaching out of his ‘prison of shame’. The controversial portrayal of Bill’s gender identity and artistic integrity are explored here by the two songwriters. Yet, when removed from the overarching concept of the film, wider commentary on identity and comfort within one’s skin, over which one has limited control, remains apparent. The duality of these songs, and a listener’s understanding of the songs, therefore, raises the album beyond that of mediocrity.
While the majority of the album consists of mellow acoustic-driven instrumentation, with occasional string embellishments, intermittent upbeat moments complete the album highlights. The groove of Back to Oz, complemented with a muddied electric guitar intro and solo on the bridge, elevates the sonic diversity that de Augustine and Stevens offer.
The two artists’ voices can also be understood well within the context of instrumentation. It is difficult to imagine two voices more complementary within the indie-folk genre; Stevens and de Augustine’s whispery falsettos become nearly indistinguishable in their upper range, creating haunting echoes in tracks such as Lady Macbeth In Chains, and contrasts the subtle but more apparent difference in tone in their lower ranges. The use of reverb furthers the embedding of their voices into the wider instrumental palette, like film characters within the three-minute cinematic moments they are portraying.
After Stevens’ recent diversions into other genres and styles, the pure masterclass in songwriting found on A Beginner’s Mind is a timely reminder of the artist’s place as one of the most influential indie-folk artists of our time. It is also important to recognise that this project is as much de Augustine’s as Steven’s, cementing his place within the industry beside his collaborator.
Illustration: Victoria Cheng