Angelo De Augustine / Sufjan Stevens

A Beginner's Mind

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A Beginner's Mind Review

by Mark Deming

Imagine just for a moment that it's the late 1990s, there's a cool video rental shop in your neighborhood, Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine are working behind the counter, and the boss has decided to let them do something special with the staff picks section. They probably wouldn't have had the means to create something like their 2021 collaborative album A Beginner's Mind, but it does find them offering their own musical commentaries on 14 films they happen to like. Supposedly, Stevens and De Augustine created this material during long songwriting sessions at Stevens' house -- they would often end up watching movies, and began composing pieces informed by what they saw. Of course, it often seems that they found what they wanted to see in the films in question; without prompting, few listeners would guess that "The Pillar of Souls" is a tip of the hat to 1992's Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, or that "Fictional California" was inspired by the 2004 competitive cheerleading opus Bring It on Again. Then again, if one subscribes to the notion that each individual perceives art in their own way, the theme of A Beginner's Mind is how elements either big or small impressed themselves on these songwriters, with ardent love emerging from the margins of 1991's The Silence of the Lambs ("Cimmerian Shade"), and loss and betrayal as the secret message in 1968's Night of the Living Dead ("You Give Death a Bad Name"). Musically, these pieces are breathy and languid, with subtle, diaphanous arrangements decorating the elegant but minimalist melodies. Stevens and De Augustine clearly had a harmonious working relationship while making this music, but the styles of the two artists are so similar that they tend to disappear into one another on a regular basis; there's little sense of contrast here, and the result is a bit like mixing Sprite with 7-Up, pleasing but incapable of bringing out any fresh nuances on either side. A Beginner's Mind is intelligent and well-crafted, and will appeal to fans of either Stevens' or De Augustine's recent work, but it somehow feels less distinct than the music they create on their own.

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