Album Review: Planetarium – Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, James McAlister (4AD)

An epic sonic journey through our solar system

Those familiar with the work of Sufjan Stevens will be in for a surprise with Planetarium, unless that is they have seen it performed live over the last couple of years. Made with classical composer and arranger Nico Muhly, orchestral and chamber music composer/guitarist Bryce Dessner and long time Stevens ally drummer James McAlister, Planetarium is as close to a concept album as I have heard in quite some time. In its attempt to encapsulate the scale of our solar system it extends 17 tracks over 75 minutes, this is an epic work in more ways than one.

Things start out in a gentle style with Neptune, clearly one of the more forgiving of planets. It is close in style to Stevens’ typical voice and guitar style but has an ethereal feel that introduces the concept being played upon. Jupiter follows with a big grungy beat and lots of reverb plus clear effects on the voice. The production uses varying degrees of auto-tune, effects and even Vocoder on the voice, which from subtle to totally robotic and not always with complete success, but no one here is going for a natural sound, this is all about creating distinct ambiance for each song. Venus for instance is as you might expect the sweetest song on Planetarium, the god of love deserves no less, but she also comes in for a seven trombone, horn powered chorus and a distinctly crunked up church organ, I believe that’s the correct ecumenical term!

Uranus is likewise quite a chilled out place but as anyone one with a passing interest in the classics might expect Mars is a whole other kettle of hardcore. It’s at this point that Stevens aficionados will be wondering what they’ve got themselves into, and whether a dark metal band has invaded the stage. The track sums up the god of war in no uncertain terms with bludgeoning drums and dark sweeps of electronica that eventually transcends to the line “the things we do for love”, so he has its soft side too. Black Energy is the first of several totally ambient tracks of which Sun is perhaps the most appealing, it has deep reverberant tones in an abstract arrangement that puts it well beyond the realms of pop and reflects the origins of its composers. The original Planetarium commission was given to Muhly by the Muziekgebouw concert hall in Eindhoven, he decided to involve Stevens and Dessner, the former introducing McAlister who provided what Stevens called “the glue” that bound the compositional lines together.

Prog-rock like in its ambitions Planetarium maintains its humanity thanks to Sufjan Stevens songs, the nature of the project means that these have a much broader scope than his usual fare but the essence is the same. This is a full immersion album that could be used to surf the cosmos from your sofa if you have a taste for both the extreme and the sublime, or it can be cherry picked for a side of Sufjan’s headspace that you will not find elsewhere.

Either way it’s a trip.

Jason Kennedy

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