By Kieran Cannon (@kiercannon)
Five years ago, born out of a commission, Muziekgebouw Eindhoven played host to an extraterrestrial space-opera paying tribute to the planets of our solar system. Joining him onstage, acclaimed composer Nico Muhly would’ve struggled to assemble a more talented group of musicians than Michigan prodigy Sufjan Stevens, serial collaborator James McAlister and the visionary Bryce Dessner of The National.
Fast forward to 2017 and the group have revisited their work, this time in the recording studio. The finished article, Planetarium, captures all the ambition of the original venture although the spontaneous excitement of the live performance gets lost in translation somewhat. Despite this, the project is a roller-coaster of gorgeous orchestral arrangements and electronic beats alternating between urgency and laid-back ambience as listeners are taken on a journey through the stars, dealing with the eternal and the mere mortal along the way.
Clocking in at a hefty 76 minutes, each and every planet (including perennial underdog Pluto) is visited throughout and the extended running time gives the arrangements plenty of time to breathe, patiently building a picture of each planet and its connection to humanity through Greek/Roman legend and other cultural portrayals.
Instead of opting for a straightforward A to B trip between planets, other celestial objects are given a nod and in true heliocentric fashion the sun takes centre stage in the running order. Coming off the back of two foreboding tracks, Mars and Black Energy, the halfway mark of the album arrives with Sun which suddenly changes the vibe with an ethereal, sci-fi tinged 4-minute instrumental, setting the tone for the second (and arguably more cosmic-sounding) part of the record.
For the most part, the contribution of all four musicians is clear to see – Nico Muhly, although considered a classical composer, hasn’t shied away from contemporary music and has risen to prominence through collaborations with Björk and Philip Glass, while Bryce Dessner and James McAlister have established themselves over the years as esteemed musicians and collaborators. There’s no mistaking their influence – sweeping melodies, crisp guitar and distinctive electronic percussion; however, it is no coincidence Sufjan Stevens has been given lead credit on the album cover. His distinctive songwriting (see: The Age of Adz) permeates the whole recording and effects-laden vocals help establish a convincing far-out atmosphere; looking back at tracks like Vesuvius, it becomes apparent where Sufjan laid the initial foundations for Planetarium.
The Michigan wordsmith showcases his ability to alternate between the mythological and the mundane; Venus tells a story of Stevens’ “Methodist summer camp” romantic activities, channeling the lust of Venus/Aphrodite and discussing it in the context of sin and taboo and Saturn describes the gruesome legend where the namesake Roman god, fearing his children would eventually overthrow him, began to eat his newborns one by one, “The youngest of children / A cannibal addiction“, hammering the story home with rapid fire keyboard and distorted beats. The monolithic Earth devotes 15 minutes to our home planet, starting off as a hazy instrumental developing into a crescendo of sound, orchestral and electronic, ending on a poignant note from Soof – “I see it / The beauty of the earth / On my death bed / But it’s too late / I’m such an idiot“. Perhaps intended to be heeded as a warning, especially in light of recent political developments and spectacular disregard for environmental issues, the possibility of not realising what we have until it’s gone is an all too likely prospect.
One thing this record has in plentiful supply is grand, sweeping statements. Most tracks benefit from the enormity of the soundscapes although on one or two occasions the opulence oversteps the mark slightly: Jupiter, for example, loses its way towards the end as it begins to get swallowed under its own weight. In spite of this, the project deserves to be commended for its ambition and, on the whole, the sublimity of its execution. It’s likely safe to say the gods would be pleased with this particular offering.