By Lysa Legros
“A Beginner’s Mind” is the first collaboration between Asthmatic Kitty labelmates Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine. The album’s 14 songs are each inspired by different films that range from horror classics like “Night of the Living Dead” to teen flicks like “Bring it On Again.” Although the films and their tracks vary in their tones and themes, Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine weave them together to form a cohesive work.
The guiding theme of “A Beginner’s Mind” is the Zen Buddhist concept the album takes its name from. The Beginner’s Mind is a practice of open-mindedness that involves letting go of preconceptions and biases about the world and approaching each situation like it’s the first.
In “A Beginner’s Mind,” Stevens and De Augustine connect a variety of characters and circumstances into a single narrative about the difficulty of reclaiming a beginner’s mind. They describe people who start their stories optimistic and excited about the adventures that await them but end them disillusioned and jaded by their trials. Eventually, some of their protagonists take part in the evils that hurt them in the first place. Soft voices, gentle acoustics and poetic lyrics vividly portray characters' descent into personal darkness and their dogged pursuit to rise above it and manifest the dreams they once had into a reality.
The album opens up with the serene and lush soundscape of “Reach Out,” a song inspired by the 1987 film “Wings of Desire.” The soft guitar arpeggiation and plucking paired alongside Stevens’ and De Augustine’s gentle harmonies make for easy listening and compliment the hesitant optimism of the song. “Reach Out,” sung from the point of view of a fallen angel who struggles to cope with his burgeoning humanity, explores an independent individualist speaker who, through his love for another, transforms into a compassionate collectivist. As the speaker transitions from his isolated perspective to a collective one, the instrumentation grows, and the guitars are joined by piano, strings and synths. “Reach Out” is a hopeful and warm ode to love.
In the next part of the album, the duo explores themes of brokenness. Songs such as “Lady Macbeth in Chains,” “Back to Oz,” and “Pillar of Souls” describe characters who have succumbed to their inner darkness. The layering of soothing instrumentation and soft singing in “Lady Macbeth in Chains” continues the serenity of the previous track. But the relaxing, yet cheerful, composition clashes against its macabre lyrics.
Stevens and De Augustine paint a bleak picture of “All About Eve’s” protagonist Margo Channing, an aging Broadway star who gets eclipsed by her younger subordinate-turned-rival Eve Harrington. Masterful storytelling develops themes of isolation and ambition introduced in the previous song. The pair coo “Open on Broadway, you’re a star/just an opportunist at heart/evil hid in glitz and glamour/drunk like a potion harvester, profiling a cunning and cut-throat main character.” The song braids gore between sweet-sounding strings.
The slow plodding baseline, atmospheric synths and drawn-out lyrics of “Back to Oz,” give it a melancholic and defeated tone that matches its description of Dorothy’s anguish and confusion upon returning to Oz in “Return to Oz.” “Back to Oz” beautifully illustrates the shock of a horrific reality not matching one’s fantastical ideas about what the world is supposed to be.
“Pillar of Souls,” based on “Hellraiser III,” continues the dark themes and electronic effects of “Return to Oz.” The song’s told from the perspective of Pinhead, the leader of the Cenobites, a demonic extraterrestrial species that feed on pain and pleasure but cannot distinguish the two from each other. Stevens’ and De Agustine’s wordplay shines on this track through creepy lyrics that subvert Christian images and motifs. “Pillar of Souls” is a spooky song that matches a spooky character.
“You Give Death a Bad Name,” based on “Night of the Living Dead,” uses zombies as a metaphor for the emptiness of American culture and includes gloomy imagery and references to Christianity to describe a loss of humanity that is anything but holy. Despite its gloominess, the track ends optimistically. The production lightens towards the end, and the chanting becomes more melodic.
The next phase of the album — with the songs “A Beginner’s Mind,” “Olympus,” and “Fictional California” — returns to the brighter themes of “Reach Out.” These songs describe a transition out of despair and into hope. They emphasize the importance of holding onto what is good despite the difficulties of the world.
The bright guitar arpeggiation of “A Beginner’s Mind” kicks off the album’s lighter arc. “A Beginner’s Mind” offers an interesting shift from the earlier part of the album told from the point of view of a zombie, who has already lost all sense of understanding and morality, to someone struggling to return to themselves once more.
“Olympus,” based on the “Clash of the Titans (1981)” develops the listlessness set up in the previous track through lyrics that emphasize the emptiness of the setting. The chorus “There’s nothing/How far away/There’s no place like home” makes up the majority of the song. The track’s other lyrics describe an epic where even the heroes know that their quest is impossible to complete. By the final line, the song finds its focus and its hope. “Olympus” ends on a small but powerful moment that releases the built-up tension.
“Fictional California” closes the brightest part of the album with a bang. The song based on “Bring it On Again” mixes peppy lyrics with folky instrumentation, twinkling piano keys, circling chords and feathery voices that keep the song fluttering upwards. The song is one of the most relaxing, and yet most motivating anthems I’ve ever heard.
The next phase of the album — with the songs “Cimmerian Shade” and “Lacrimae” — returns to darker themes and comments on the last section’s reassurances.
“Cimmerian Shade’s” sunny chords and hymnal melody allows the song to transition audibly well from “Fictional California,” but its lyrical content jars sharply against the earlier track. “Cimmerian Shade,” is based on “Silence of the Lambs,” which focuses on Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who skins women alive and wears their skin for sexual gratification.
The final song on the album “Lacrimae,” based on the 1962 short film “Lacrimal Rerum,” ends on a sorrowful, open-ended note. “Lacrimae” is a quiet and subdued finale about a character who is exhausted from the journey that life has taken them on and is dismayed that their dreams still have not come to fruition.
“A Beginner’s Mind” showcases a journey into and out of hope, of persevering against impossible odds. As Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine sing in the album’s ninth track, “(This Is) The Thing”: “Live it up for the path of resistance.”