“You’re just a shade of something betrayed,” is one of the many ways Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine describe the consequences of trauma on their fragile first collaborative album. The 14 lo-fi tracks on A Beginner’s Mind were written when the artists spent a month together in a friend’s house in upstate New York, where they watched films including Return to Oz and Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. Fans of such sensitive souls might be surprised to learn how many horror films they chose. But what better way to raise and interrogate the ghosts of buried fear than by sharing a sofa through the likes of The Thing, Silence of the Lambs and Hellraiser III?
The soundtrack to Hellraiser is dominated by heavy metal so loud it makes the viewer feel like the star of a Pinhead origin story. But this duo have reflected on their binge-watch in sweetly harmonised acoustic tranquillity, like a modern-day Simon & Garfunkel with PhDs in psychotherapy.
Stevens, 46, and 28-year old De Augustine (a Californian artist whose last three albums of acoustic bathtub recordings have been released on Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label) whisper together into what sounds like the same microphone, often in pretty falsetto. You begin to picture them as boys at a sleepover, torches under the duvet to ward off the evening’s celluloid monsters, as they swap furtive confidences through the night. But don’t get too cosy with the childlike innocence. They’ll shatter it using dark, post-faith choruses or drop in terms such as “autogynephilia” (on “Cimmerian Shade”), which describes a sexual orientation where one is aroused at the thought or image of oneself as a woman.
“I have a memory… now my apology,” begins opener “Reach Out”. It’s inspired by Wim Wenders’ 1987 romantic fantasy Wings of Desire, about an angel in Berlin who chooses to become human so he can experience the full range of human sensation. The angel’s yearning to touch the people he loves has obvious post-pandemic weight. “Reach out,” Stevens and De Augustine sing, “And all at once the pain restores you.”
Elsewhere, John Carpenter’s cult 1982 horror The Thing – about a strange force that inhabits the bodies of dogs and humans in the Arctic – allows the pair to explore the way conspiracy and paranoia spreads within communities. “This is the thing about people,” they sigh. “You never really know what’s inside/ Somewhere in the soul there’s a secret/ Hysteria grows where it was invited.” “Lady Macbeth in Chains” is inspired by 1950’s All About Eve and finds the pair getting a string-slapping groove on. But then the guitars dissolve into a synth melody that’s been part of Stevens’ trademark mood-shifter since brilliant, confessional Carrie & Lowell (2015). The duo get a little funky on “Back to Oz”, which features De Augustine’s first ever electric guitar solo, which has shades of George Harrison. It’s a hypnotic track that sinks slowly but deeply into your bones. “Don’t be my lost cause,” the pair implore on the chorus, as the drummer really smashes into it, muffled as if the sticks are being handled in the house next door.
Trauma shifts from the personal to the national on “A Beginner’s Mind”. Piano backs the pair as they carol of Columbine, ex presidents and uncut kilograms on the tender track inspired, surprisingly, by surf-crime action movie Point Break. There are melodic echoes of Elliot Smith on “Murder & Crime”, and a growing sense of unease on “Cimmerian Shade” (inspired by Silence of the Lambs). Although things start out with cosy fingerpicking, the song eventually tumbles into a yawning pit of brass and unsettling sound effects. “I just want you to love me,” runs the chorus, “I just wanted to know/change/love myself.” They then call on the director: “Fix it oh Jonathan Demme/ Beauty resides where spirit dwells!”
The great thing about this album is that you can choose to fall down a nerdy rabbit hole with its creators and dissect all the movie themes. Or, you can just let it wash over you while you catch the odd breeze of reference here and there. And though it lacks the direct gut-punch of one of Stevens’ best solo records, it’s infused with the warmth of real friendship.
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