It is becoming increasingly apparent that there are two versions of Sufjan Stevens and the chasm between them is widening. One is folksy, while the other is ambient. One is lyrical, the other is wordless. One is touching, topical and a little grandiose, while the other is so devoid of form that it verges on musical antimatter. It is remarkable that these two strains of musicianship have been intermingled in one man, but perhaps that is the night side of every great talent.
“Reach Out / Olympus” are the early release tracks of Stevens and Angelo De Augustine’s forthcoming collaborative project “A Beginner’s Mind.” The two songs do not disappoint. They harken back to Stevens’ sound at the summit of his creative powers, but the relief the songs induce in the listener is worth interrogating.
After the 49-track debacle of “Convocations” rolled out in April and May, it’s tempting to accept anything from Stevens with lyrics and a hummable melody. De Augustine’s presence on the track serves more as a preservationist than as a collaborator — like a reliquary to safeguard the audio file splinters of the one true cross.
It is undeniable that Stevens’ discography resonates with majesty. This is a man who gave us horseflies and pear trees on his mother’s deathbed. He took us on that long, American drive to Chicago and recorded every mesmerizing tremor of falling in love with another man without ever actually labeling his sexuality. Stevens has chartered boats to ferry us across the Great Lakes, shown us the hysterical lights of the Pacific Northwest and now, he wants to take us to the movies.
Each track on “A Beginner’s Mind” draws inspiration from a film, but the cinematic landscapes Stevens and De Augustine draw from are less than sweeping. Stevens has a long flirtation with Greek classics (Dido was at his mother’s deathbed too) and this attraction seems to have reached its neoclassical zenith in “Olympus.” Inspired by the 1981 film “Clash of the Titans,” the song uses minor chords and whispered background vocals to deliver the tired, Dorothy-in-Oz conceit that “there’s no place like home.”
“Reach Out” is the more promising of the two tracks, blending tight songwriting with euphoric instrumentation and universal themes. The song was developed around the 1988 film “Wings of Desire,” which follows two angels on a celestial sojourn in postwar Berlin. Like the two angels in the film, Stevens and De Augustine have a journey to take as well.
The intro and the outro of “Reach Out” both end on the word “mind” which creates a perfect feedback loop between the song and the album’s title. In the outro, the speaker tells us of “a time and place where history resigned” and how “all the light came in to fulminate my mind.” It may not be the most profound song ever written about postwar Berlin (David Bowies’ “Heroes” is safe on that account), but there is something beguiling about the finery of Stevens and De Augustine’s harmonies and the babbling brook of alternate-picked chords played on an acoustic guitar.
A minute and a half in, the brook bursts into a fountain. Bells, pianos and banjos come in all at once with exquisite lyrics: “All my life, I tried so hard/ To separate myself from all/ That is and was and will be torn apart.” It’s like Groundhog Day, but instead of a rodent, Stevens bursts out from under the earth promising the end of winter, the pandemic, or whatever it is that’s been tearing you apart. De Augustine is there too somewhere, but his presence on the track is really only heard in a campfire singalong sort of way.
Stevens never reveals what has been tearing him apart. Perhaps it really is just about angels and the Berlin Wall, but the lyrical emphasis on the word “defiance” carves out a resonant space for the song in the present day. This is then followed by a promise: “All at once, the pain restores you.” These words are certainly true of life. Perhaps in time, it may also prove to be true of the peaks and the depressions in Stevens’ discography.