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On A Beginner’s Mind, Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine Use Fiction as a Guide and a Salve

Stevens’s latest collaboration is a folksy return to form and skillful synthesis of his abilities

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A Beginners Mind Review
Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine, photo courtesy of the artists

    Sufjan Stevens is nothing if not prolific. The experimental artist has released a ton of albums over the past few years, each one a unique effort at navigating his emotional state and the state of the world at large.

    Almost one year ago to the date, Stevens released The Ascension, an expansion exploration into love, death, apocalypse and nationality. The Ascension was preceded by Aporia, a collaborative album with Stevens’s stepfather, Lowell Brams. Earlier this year, Stevens unleashed Convocations, a five-volume instrumental exploration of grief in the wake of the death of his biological father.

    We’ll do the math for you: A Beginner’s Mind marks Stevens’s fourth album in two years. This time, he’s collaborated with Californian Angelo De Augustine, who has an indie-folk style complementary to Stevens’ and has toured with him in the past. The two spent a month songwriting together at a friend’s cabin in upstate New York, and developed a pattern of choosing a new movie to watch each night to unwind and look for inspiration.

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    That inspiration is palpable in the album, the title of which is driven by The Zen Buddhist concept of shoshin. A lot of the songs attempt to trouble our ideas of fiction and escape, and the rudimentary rest they can offer us; the piano-laced “(This Is) The Thing” asserts, “This is the thing about fiction, how everything feeds on its paranoia,” and the downbeat “Olympus” questions, “Am I at rest or resigned in my chaos?”

    The album feels in some ways like classic Sufjan — the soft, lyric-driven indie-folk that fans would be familiar with from albums like Seven Swans and Carrie & Lowell. His lyrics are as acute as ever (who else could rhyme “lessons and metaphors” with “signals and semaphores” without missing a beat?). But the other thing Sufjan is known for is that aforementioned experimentation, and that’s all present here, too.

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