One year after melodically grappling with video games, Sufjan Stevens is back with a new album informed by hours spent 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 Sept. 24, was mostly an accident, erupting from days spent writing songs and nights spent watching whatever they could stream or torrent — “highbrow, lowbrow, and everything in between,” as the duo put it in their album notes. The result is a record that reverberates with the haunting melancholy of 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, but with lyrics like “Cenobite seized within the throes / To be released from the Pillar of Souls.” It’s pretty great.
How extreme were Stevens and De Augustine’s viewing habits? Here’s a breakdown of the songs and the 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. “Back To Oz” - Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)
4. “The Pillar Of Souls” - Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (Anthony Hickox, 1992)
5. “You Give Death A Bad Name” - Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
6. “Beginner’s Mind” - Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)
7. “Olympus” - 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’s Gotta Have It (Spike Lee, 1986)
11. “Lost In The World” - The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977)
12. “Fictional California” - Bring It On Again (Damon Santostefano, 2004)
13. “Cimmerian Shade” - The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
14. “Lacrimae” - Lacrimae rerum (Nikos Nikolaidis, 1962)
Stevens resists the idea that A Beginner’s Mind is “about” the movies; rather, he and De Augustine refer to them in the GQ interview as catalysts for “a new cinematic experience.”
“I think that for us to make critiques of these films and to be dead serious about it, it required that we work these little moments of comic relief into it,” he said. “I was almost like a tempering of extremes. The songs became these weird mashups. Sometimes we would just stumble upon a phrase in a film that was so ridiculous that we wanted to somehow work it in. I think it’s not so much that we’re winking and being self-conscious about it. I think what we’re doing is almost a descriptive analysis of the language that we receive from all these pop culture sources.”
But there’s true cinéaste fandom at the heart of A Beginner’s Mind: Stevens admits to being a big horror guy, and having terrible taste in movies. Still, somewhere in the schlock of Hellraiser III, he found heart ... and what the liner notes describe as “an S&M dirge.” Anyone who doubts Stevens’ legitimate enjoyment of something as paint-by-numbers as the direct-to-DVD Bring It On sequel need look to a speech he delivered during a show at The Chicago Theater in 2015 (via quick-transcribing Redditor Chudaroo):
So we were watching Bring It On 2 on the bus last week. And its definitely in my top 10. And you know the story — we’ve all seen that movie. There’s a faction ... like the cheerleaders split off. Theres like the loser faction, and then the preppy winner faction and the loser faction because the preppy winner faction of cheerleaders is already like rooting for football and basketball and all that. The other sort of deadbeat faction - they decide they’re going to cheer for croquette, table tennis, what else? Golf.
And its pretty amazing because it got me thinking you know, in spite of the sort of oddness of the context, these cheerleaders being at unusual sporting events, it got me thinking of the notion of the periphery of encouragement we have in our life. When we are really young, theres like this constant positive reinforcement. Where you’re teaching a child to talk and you say: “Thats good, this a ball, and you say ball, and I say ball and you say good” and then there are smiles and affirmation. You know in elementary school your teachers are always giving you those stickers with the stars and in junior varsity sports theres always that assistant coach on the sidelines whose like, “Keep going! look alive! you’re amazing! teamwork! defense!” And then you get to college and you have your mentors your professors, and you write you dissertation, advisors — great at giving positive reinforcement, critiques, feedbacks.
And then you get into the real world. And all those people leave. They’re no longer around. And it’s just you stuck in your own sort of insular, solitary, depressed mind. And it gets pretty dark sometimes. And the cheerleader within you is vindictive and self punishing. And theres a voice thats constantly sort of batting you over the head with all kinds of expletives and negative reinforcement. And thats what I carry around a lot of the times, its like constant negative reinforcement with everything. And so I saw this movie last week and I was like, that’s really awesome that there’s this like idea of a cheerleading squad at every corner of every game. It doesn’t matter if its table tennis or croquette — and we need that, you know — at our jobs, at our cubicles. We need the deadbeat cheerleading squad to just pop out of nowhere and be like: “look alive.”
A Beginner’s Mind is streaming now and available on vinyl via Bandcamp.