“I just got so sick of folk music,” Sufjan Stevens said when promoting his album The Ascension exactly a year ago. That didn’t last long. Fans of this questing Detroit singer-songwriter’s softer side will be pleased to hear that this new collection abandons The Ascension’s frosty electronics, brings back the plucked guitars and piano and rarely raises its voices above a whisper.
The decision to collaborate with his Californian label mate Angelo De Augustine was never going to blow up the speakers. De Augustine’s deeply lovely 2019 album Tomb made Stevens’ wispiest material sound like Slayer. Here they share intimate vocals and writing credits and fit together seamlessly.
One thing Stevens hasn’t become sick of is the concept album. The 46-year-old gained a lot of attention early in his career by threatening to record an album for each of the 50 American states (stopping after two) and has also released an album about a highway in New York, 49 ambient tracks representing the five stages of grief and a box set of Christmas music.
On A Beginner’s Mind, it’s movie night round Sufjan and Angelo’s. The pair holed up together for a month in a cabin in upstate New York, watching a wide selection of films in the evenings and writing songs based on what they had seen the next day. The gruesome album cover suggests the results will be jarring. It’s inspired by the world of hand-painted Ghanaian movie posters (a subject well worth a google) and includes a Ray Harryhausen Medusa, a rainbow to Oz, a winged insect from Silence of the Lambs and a Point Break wave.
However, even Keanu Reeves’ and Patrick Swayze’s surfing bunk robbers flick ends up as a meek piano ballad, the title track, while Harryhausen’s stop motion monsters in Clash of the Titans inspire the weightless loveliness of Olympus. Not even Hellraiser III can persuade these two to ramp up the terror in song on The Pillar of Souls, although the distant clanks and almost chanted chorus gives at least a sense of mild unease.
Where they really excel is in finding the poetry where no one previously thought to look, for example in forgotten cheerleader sequel Bring It On Again, which is the prompt for the twinkling, deftly plucked Fictional California. It’s hardly music for a Night of the Living Dead – another reference here – but for a quiet night in a dark room, it hits the spot.