Jakob's Album Reviews

Words About Music

James McAlister, Bryce Dessner, Sufjan Stevens, and Nico Muhly — Planetarium — ALBUM REVIEW


“Planetarium” is a project that the above experimental musicians have been crafting for a couple years now, and it has finally made its way through the studio and onto our beloved streaming services. The artists involved are, in no particular order:

  1. James McAlister — drummer, percussionist (synthetic and organic)
  2. Bryce Dessner — guitarist, composer, 1/5 of The National
  3. Sufjan Stevens — vocals, sadboy extraordinaire
  4. Nico Muhly — composer, strings, avant

I’ve been cautiously anticipating this record, worried that it would not surpass the sum of its (excellent) parts. It’s a 76-minute concept album about outer space, specifically our solar system, with some elements of mythology and romance thrown in for good measure. It’s a beast of a record that doesn’t make for good background listening. Considering I really enjoy the music of these artists (though I was unfamiliar with McAlister before listening), it would have been a sheer disappointment to go through this long-ass album and end up disliking it. Let’s see what I thought of it.

Soft keyboards kick off the album, with the song “Neptune.” This is a beautiful track which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Sufjan Stevens solo album, with his bizarre melody delivering unpredictable verse. Immediately, the four musicians behind this album are making it clear that this won’t be a straightforward look at the Solar System, more that the Solar System serves as sort of a baseline through which the artists are allowed to experiment almost infinitely. Sufjan sings about lost love, exploring astrological concepts which coincide with the planet Neptune, while also making some subtle references to water, of which Neptune is the Roman god.

The 7-minute “Jupiter” follows, kicking off with synths that remind me of Radiohead’s “Kid A.” This is another fantastic song on this album, with an epic, building instrumental-backing that is composed of McAlister’s moody drumming, Dessner’s ambient guitars, and the compositional elements Stevens and Muhly bring to the table. It’s the first track on the album that truly seems to go for a “space”-type sound. I’d call it “space rock,” but I struggle to call this a rock album in the first place. Space pop, maybe?

I also love the lyrics in this song, which also make loose reference to the subject matter without making it literally about the planet Jupiter. Jupiter is the King of the Roman gods, so it makes sense that this track would have such a progressive, booming structure. Whether it’s the noisy, demanding second half with its sequenced drums or the Vocoder breakdown with Sufjan singing: “Jupiter is the loneliest planet.” It’s also a pretty catchy song, and Muhly’s horns and strings bring a film-soundtrack intensity to this track that really allows it to finish strongly.

After “Halley’s Comet,” a 30-second interlude, comes “Venus,” a sexually-charged song that has Sufjan referencing sexual experiences at Methodist summer camp and using the word “Callipygian,” a word which literally means “of fine, well-shaped buttocks.” This is yet another highpoint in the album for me, and it continues Sufjan’s lyrical goal of incorporating imagery associated with certain Roman gods and craft them into lyrics that are still incredibly personal. It’s easy to think of this as a Sufjan Stevens album featuring the three other musicians, despite the equal share of musical labor that went into this project.

The next song, “Uranus,” goes into some of the mythology of that Roman god. To sum it up, Uranus attempted to rape (I think) Gaia, also known as Earth, and was consequently castrated by his own son, Cronos. Foam began to emanate from the castrated area, and from that foam came Venus, the subject of the previous song. I think it’s interesting that they chose to structure the tracks this way, and it definitely rewards the listener who dares research the intentions behind the tracks.

It’s also a pretty good song, with Sufjan taking an oppositional stance against Uranus’ acts, with one particularly biting line being: “You sexless fraud/From chaos choreographed/Defiled us in a fit of rage/The earth will find its way.” This is another 7-minute track, and it justifies its length with gorgeous synth phrases and ambient, almost post-rock inspired phrases. The instrumental interlude in this song very much feels like it could soundtrack a documentary about outer space. All that’s missing is some Neil DeGrasse Tyson narration.

After a noisy ending, the track transitions right into “Mars,” where Bryce Dessner especially shines with his creative guitar work. Sufjan’s vocals come in underneath many modulations and effects, rendering him unrecognizable. There is practically no pitch to it, just layers upon layers of robotic, electronic tones. It’s cool, but it’s also sort of grating. I’m pretty mixed on the vocals, but I think the track itself is saved with its consistently interesting use of synthesizers and horns. With that said, it’s definitely not my favorite song on the album, which is where I start to worry about the fact that this album is well over an hour long. I’m unsure at this point whether the rest of the album will continue to build on the great material I’ve heard up to now, or whether it’ll seem like this group has run out of ideas.

“Mars” seamlessly transitions into “Black Energy,” a 5.5-minute instrumental cut. It’s an ambient song that kind of fades into the background if you don’t pay any attention to it, and I feel like it either could have just been tacked onto the end of “Mars” or it could have just been left off the album. While it does give us a nice break in the album after so many grandiose songs, I don’t think it stands on its own merits. It does feel a bit like navel-gazing, but it’s not at all an offensively bad song. Sonically, it fits, but I don’t feel like it adds much.

After “Black Energy” comes another, similar instrumental song, “Sun.” This one is a bit more driven by the spacey, distorted, thin synths which pepper the background. It’s a bit noisier and has a smoother build to it, so I think it’s a nice progression from the somewhat ignorable “Black Energy.” After “Sun” fades out, “Tides” is brought into view, with its 58 seconds of soft keyboard work serving as an introduction to “Moon.”

“Moon” kicks off with soft drum machines, relaying an Aztec myth about a god, Quetzalcoatl, who memorialized a jack rabbit which offered itself up as food to save him from dying of starvation. Its second verse relays a Cree myth about the origins of the red face patch which cranes have, which is said to originate from a crane giving a rabbit a ride to the moon, and the rabbit then touching the crane’s face with a bleeding paw. I love how he uses these unrelated legends and brings them into the fold for the song’s thematic intent, and I think this track in particular is one of the more accessible ones on the album, not even reaching the 4-minute mark.

We get another shorter song with “Pluto,” which nicely highlights Dessner’s swelling guitars, which can sometimes be lost in the sea of synths. This track is a bit more esoteric, combining elements of Roman mythology, poetry, and the mutual orbit between Pluto and Charon, one of its moons. I love the gorgeous string arrangements in this track, and all the tracks, really. It makes me glad that Nico Muhly played such a big role in this album, as his compositions allow this record to transition well past the indietronica vibe that Sufjan is going for with his synths and vocals.

“Pluto,” like many of these songs, transitions into an instrumental track, titled “Kuiper Belt.” I think the instrumental here is a bit more busy and engaging than what has been brought to the table previously, and it sounds like it’d fit right in on a Fuck Buttons record. In 2 minutes it takes us through space on light speed, only to slow to a grinding halt and leave us hanging, getting sucked into a “Black Hole,” another 30-second instrumental. This track is dense and spooky, giving a sonic equivalent to being trapped inside a black hole. But maybe we’ve hit a wormhole instead, because the nightmare ends and we are brought to “Saturn.”

Unfortunately, “Saturn” makes even more grating use of vocal modulation than “Mars,” and I am pretty shocked that this was the album’s first single. I do think that the rest of this song is pretty good, with its lyrics referring to Cronus eating all of his children, its catchy hook, and wild production. However, it’s certainly not a favorite of mine in the tracklisting considering that the vocal effects render it somewhat annoying, even headache-inducing. This track is followed by another interlude, the 1-minute “In the Beginning,” which is appropriately spiritual with its uplifting ambience and churchlike reverb.

Following this, as we near the end of the album, is the 15-minute “Earth,” the longest song on the album by far. The track begins with more beautiful, orchestral ambient sounds, perhaps representing the Abrahamic account of God’s supposed creation of the Earth in 7 days, which was a time of beauty and innocence and hope. Then, God had to go and create humans, which would go on to bring both beauty and destruction to the world; our planet’s inheritance from God results in contradiction. Sufjan also indulges some weird vocal effects on this track, but I think it’s the most successful usage of them on the entire album. It’s a beautiful fucking song, whether or not you subscribe to Sufjan’s view that this and all we know was created by some omnipotent supreme being who wants the best for us but also wants us to die. The track builds and looms into transcendent bliss, and it makes the case for Sufjan as an artist who should write more double-digit songs.

“I see it/The beauty of the Earth/On my death bed/But it’s too late/I’m such an idiot;” these powerful lines close the track off in fine, provocative fashion. I think this song approaches the subject of climate change in an interesting way, comparing the effects of climate change to the Rapture, the day when God is said to return to send all the sinners to the lake of fire and to take the non-sinners with him to the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s a dark concept for a dark song, and it makes a literarily powerful call to action to join together as a species and quit killing the beautiful planet we’ve inherited, whether you think we have inherited from a supreme being or we inherited it by nature of being born here.

The album closes off in a comparatively minimal fashion with “Mercury,” about the planet which is closest to our Sun. It’s a pretty ballad with Sufjan delivering thoughtful romance atop Dessner’s layered guitars and Muhly’s piano. It’s a lovely, quiet ending to an album that has seemed to try and top itself with each subsequent monolith. It’s also appropriate for the group to start with the planet furthest from the Sun and end with the one closest, solidifying the concept and bringing us ever closer into Sufjan’s personal story, with the fantastic musical contributions of Bryce Dessner, James McAlister, and Nico Muhly.

There’s a lot to love about “Planetarium.” Sure, it’s too long and not all of its instrumental tracks feel entirely necessary to the album’s flow and completion. It is clear that this is a musical piece derived from a live performance, and not the other way around, as I’m sure the ambient interludes feel less like filler in the flesh than they do on the album. I also don’t love every musical decision made here, specifically some of the vocal effects employed by Mr. Stevens throughout. With that said, there is more to love about this record than there is to dislike, and I can very much see it growing on me.

“Planetarium” is a difficult album to listen to and an even more difficult one to process and analyze. At times, it feels self-indulgent, and I wish the album version of this project didn’t consist of every bell and whistle this foursome brought to the fold back in 2012. I’m also concerned that it doesn’t have much replay value as a whole piece, despite featuring plenty of excellent, unique songs. At press time, though, I feel very good about it. Just don’t be surprised if it ends up being merely an honorable mention at the end of the year instead of high up on my best-of-2017 list. It’s a polarizing album, one that you’re just as likely to hate as you are to love, even if you’re already a Sufjan Stevens fan. I really dig it for all of its ambition, most of its execution, and some of its songs.

SCORE — 7.75 out of 10

FAVORITE TRACKS — Neptune, Jupiter, Venus, Uranus, Mars, Moon, Pluto, Kuiper Belt, Earth, Mercury


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