[sic] Magazine

Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister – Planetarium

An indie super-group so confident in their project they couldn’t even be bothered coming up with a band name, Planetarium is the co-composed concept of – duh – Sufjan Stevens, his frequent percussive collaborator James McAlister, Bryce Dessner of The National (and recently of The Revenant’s score), as well as go-to composer for many an alternative outfit Nico Muhly (Grizzly Bear, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Jónsi, Antony & The Johnsons and others). 17 tracks spanning 75 minutes and abetted by string quartets and brass chorales, it’s a celebration of diverse styles packed with every prog-opera excess you can think of. Charting almost all the solar system’s planets along with select other celestial bodies and an entire galaxy’s worth of cosmological mythology courtesy of Sufjan’s vocals, some of which are somewhat tenuously tied to an existential macrocosm for what it means to be human today, Planetarium is consequently a bit of a slog. Suffice it to say in more simple terms then that Gustav Holst’s crown remains in place as master-in-chief of all things interstellar.

In any case, six years ago, the Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven commissioned Muhly for new content and, immediately thinking of his friends Dessner and Sufjan, the project was born. Sufjan brought McAlister and his electronics into the fold and the rest is, as they say, history. Less a case though of too many cooks spoiling the broth and more one of several strong influences seeming to cancel each another out, Planetarium’s meditative sense of balance is too often delivered in overly tasteful, luxurious yet tepid tones. That its most striking statement may well prove to be its most divisive holds the key to its reception as an album. Caning oscillator patterns and spliced and diced auto-tune to a level that’d make Bon Iver blush, “Saturn” obligingly delivers both maximum space-prog motifs and floor-filling appeal, a huge ripple in the flux and an apparent retro-futurist rave aboard Mir as it began its death spiral. Hate it and you may be denied entry to this Planetarium’s special exhibits for fear of what you may find. Love it and there’s nothing else like it on what is elsewhere quite a minimal and sometimes ambient release. Either way, as a track it gives the most compelling argument on Planetarium for its very existence … an ironic strain of unintended existentialism flourishing under the auspices of the more contrived.

Speaking of Sufjan and his auto-tuned vocal turn, be prepared to be even more surprised. That fluttery folk alto of his may remain intact during the wheezy piano ballad that opens the album, but throughout it develops through soaring melodies to the tune of Chris Martin and then on further into outright screaming, is festooned otherwise by spacey vocoder/pedal effects a little too often and, when not, impressively nails impossible high notes time and again. The problem is though that on an album that’s all about the lyrics, they’re too regularly allowed either to be crowded out by the lush instrumentation or too heavily adorned by dressing for the unusual slant rhymes and imagery to come to the fore, which sadly helps contribute to much of Planetarium passing by far too easily.

Containing a much-needed injection of energy and urgency, the gently moseying “Jupiter” lurches around as if on the high seas rather than surfing gravitational waves, the track contorting during its 7 minutes to come alive via rapid-fire drum-machine compressions that lead to a complex crescendo. That these same embarrassment of musical instruments and elaborate guitar harmonies are rendered beige elsewhere is disappointing. On cue, “Mars” – the Bringer of War, no less – is subjected to a so-so swelling of orchestral arrangement. Experimental moments such as the cold and lonely “Black Energy” hold, to their credit, more interest, radiophonic workshop-style zoning classily rounded out to symphonic drone. In this same vein, “Sun” is shimmering soundtrack work set to cosmological drift, cut free from the capsule’s tethers and alone amongst the stars. It’s Solaris by way of 2001: A Space Oddity, calm, hypnotic and yet utterly helpless. Benefitting from the warmth of the last of the sun’s rays, it’s eternal opposite “Moon” is in turn an aptly lunar lullaby, the glitchy ghost of electro-pop on its way up into the heavens.

Saving their lengthiest focus for their home planet, all 15 minutes of “Earth” are a huge and proper-sounding composition, the literal space between blossoming bars conveying the emptiness of the furthest reaches of our perception, knob-twiddling electronics thudding and pulsing throughout the carefully constructed suite. The claustrophobia of planet Earth given free unfettered reign in the cosmos, the giftshop at the end of the ride, it’s Planetarium in a doggy bag. And yet the nagging fact remains that the only planetaria of real note are those that featured in Rebel Without A Cause (then La La Land) and in episodes of South Park and, perhaps barrel-scrapingly, Friends. This Planetarium barely makes even that list. Note to the head of procurement: laser show and smoke machine needed urgently.

Best track: “Saturn”

~Planetarium is released June 9th 2017 via 4AD.~