The per­sonal in the univer­sal

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC REVIEWS - SIOBHÁN KANE


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. plan­e­tar­i­u­mal­

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