A year after struggling melodically with video games, Sufjan Stevens is back with a new album lighted up by hours of watching movies with fellow indie folk / lo-fi musician Angelo De Augustine. In a new interview with GQ, Stevens and De Augustine admit that the cinematic foundation of A beginner’s mind, released on September 24, was mostly an accident, resulting from days of writing songs and nights of watching anything they could stream or torrent – “highbrow, lowbrow, and everything in between,” as the duo put it in their notes. album. The result is a record that resonates with the haunting melancholy of the 2015s. Carrie & Lowell, but with lyrics like “Cenobite seized in throes / To be freed from the pillar of souls.” It’s pretty awesome.
How extreme were Stevens and De Augustine’s listening habits? Here’s a breakdown of the songs and movies that inspired them:
1. “Reach out” – Wings of desire, (Wim Wenders, 1987)
2. “Lady Macbeth in chains” – All about Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
3. “Return to Oz” – Back to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)
4. “The pillar of souls” – Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (Anthony Hickox, 1992)
5. “You are giving death a bad name” – Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
6. “Beginner’s mind” – Breaking point (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)
7. « Olympe » – Clash of the Titans (Desmond Davis, 1981)
8. “Murder and crime” – Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)
9. “(This is) the thing” – The thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
10. “It’s your own body and mind” – She must have it (Spike Lee, 1986)
11. “Lost in the world” – The last wave (Peter Weir, 1977)
12. “Fictitious California” – Bring it again (Damon Santostefano, 2004)
13. “Cimmerian Shadow” – Thesilenceofthelambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
14. “Tears” – Tears of things (Nikos Nikolaidis, 1962)
Stevens resists the idea that A beginner’s mind is “about” movies; on the contrary, he and De Augustine refer to them in the GQ interview as catalysts for “a new cinematic experience”.
“I think in order for us to do reviews on these movies and be really serious about it, we had to work on those little moments of comedic relief,” he said. “I was almost like a temper of extremes. The songs became these weird mashups. Sometimes we would just come across a line in a movie that was so ridiculous that we somehow wanted to fit it in. I think what we’re doing is almost a descriptive analysis of the language we’re getting from all of these pop culture sources.
But there is some truth filmmaker fandom in the heart of A beginner’s mind: Stevens admits to being a great horror guy and having a terrible taste for movies. Yet somewhere in the schlock of Hellraiser III, he found the heart… and what the liner notes describe as “an S&M funeral song”. Anyone who doubts Stevens’ legitimate enjoyment of something as painted as the Direct DVD Bring it on The sequel has to look at a speech he gave during a performance at the Chicago Theater in 2015 (via Redditor Chudaroo’s Quick Transcript):
So we were watching Bring it 2 on the bus last week. And it’s definitely in my top 10. And you know the story – we’ve all seen this movie. There is a faction… like the cheerleaders who broke up. It’s like the losing faction and then the preppy winning faction and the losing faction because the preppy cheerleader winning faction is already like a root for football and basketball and stuff. The other kind of deadbeat faction – they decide they’re going to encourage kibble, table tennis, what else? Golf.
And it’s pretty amazing because it got me thinking, you know, despite the kind of weirdness of the context, these cheerleaders being at unusual sporting events, it got me thinking about the notion of the periphery. encouragement that we have in our life. When we’re really young, there’s like this constant positive reinforcement. Where you teach a kid to speak and you say, “That’s good, that’s a bullet, and you say bullet, and I say bullet and you say good,” and then there are smiles and affirmations. You know in elementary school your teachers always give you those stickers with the stars and in junior college sports there’s always that assistant coach on the sidelines that says, “Keep it up!” looks alive! you’re amazing! team work! defense! And then you get to college and you have your mentors, your professors, and you write your thesis, your advisers – great at giving positive reinforcement, criticism, feedback.
And then you step into the real world. And all these people leave. They are no longer there. And it’s just you stuck in your own kind of island spirit, lonely, depressed. And it is sometimes quite dark. And the cheerleader in you is vindictive and self-punishing. And there’s a voice that’s constantly hitting you over the head with all kinds of curses and negative reinforcements. And that’s what I wear a lot, it’s like constant negative reinforcement with everything. And so I saw this movie last week and I was like, it’s really great that there’s this idea of a cheerleader squad on every corner of every game. It doesn’t matter if it’s table tennis or kibble – and we need it, you know – at our jobs, at our cabins. We need the undead cheerleader team to pop up out of nowhere and say, “look alive”.
A beginner’s mind is streaming now and available on vinyl through Bandcamp.