The personal in the universal
SUFJAN STEVENS/BRYCE DESSNER/NICO MUHLY/ JAMES MCALISTER Planetarium ★★★★ 4AD
Planetarium was conceived four years ago, when Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven commissioned Nico Muhly to create a new piece. Nico brought Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, and James McAlister on board, and an ambitious work emerged. Live shows followed, and now the studio record, which sounds as mysterious and evocative as the solar system it seeks to understand.
It shares something of a philosophical and musical space with Björk’s 2011 immersive Biophilia, which articulated itself as a unique synthesis of music, nature and science, harnessing a sense of exploration. Planetarium exists in that same universe, a song cycle on the sun, the nine planets, their moons, and all else that inhabits it. It reflects back to the complicated nature of the human condition, making everything seem at once lonely and comforting.
That symbiosis is present in the collaborators’ respective traditions, bringing in wonky classicism, celestial folk, rock, electronica and a modernist slant. The dub-techno percussion on Jupiter sits beside the stirring, moving brass on Venus, and the radiant synths on Tides. Everything is so finely wrought, like the tender caress of the guitar on Uranus (which complements the layered choral), or the way the synths and guitar on Sun create a glowing drone that makes you think of the healing, revealing power of light. The nesting effect on Saturn reflects its extensive ring system, with Stevens’ icy vocoded vocal bobbing on a stack of shapeshifting electronics.
Stevens’ affecting voice draws focus, distilling heart to all this wandering. It is most beautifully rendered on Mercury, which transmits an ache that works its way through the piano melody. The smallest planet devastates. He sings about the harshness of the world; he is “desperate” and “messed up” all because he is “gentle” and “steadfast”. He is also “consequence” and “evidence”; there is a personal, yet universal message here, and it is love. Mesmerising. planetariumalbum.com