Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister - Planetarium

by Liam Hill

A modern day hero and pillar of independent music, Sufjan Stevens returns with yet another conceptual album, though this time with support from Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and James McAlister. Planetarium, the inspiration of this being self-explanatory, is a theatrical and experimental exploration of the solar system and all its wonder, with the brilliance of Sufjan and The National shining through. An album which had previously been toured live has finally hit the studio, this being a collaboration and performance long anticipated.

Conceptually, this album is direct, certain and clear. The theme of the album is its core strength, providing a vibrant and continued thematic thread from start to end. It is this, the artistic focus on astronomy, that positively drives this album forward. From the gorgeous artwork to the delicate string ensembles, as a progressive concept album, this is one of the most confident and convincing examples of the 21st century. On that note, Sufjan Stevens must be credited as one of the most continually successful conceptual artists of the twenty years, and whilst this album is a collaborative effort, his influence, knowledge and ability is most prominent and directional for the piece as a whole. In places Planetarium feels like a decorated Sufjan Stevens album, though the additional influences from Bryce and Muhly are both necessary and superb at ensuring the overall grandeur of this project is achieved.

Lyrically, Sufjan is as emotive and poetic as ever. Whilst naturally there is a scientific driving force inspiring the album, as with the universe, this release is far from one dimensional. With religious undertones, Sufjan & co question morality, the meaning of life and justice. Jupiter provides for some of the albums greatest lyrical moments with religious, mythological and astronomical allusions brilliantly interweaved to provide for numerous interpretations and understandings. But it is when all of these themes come together when Sufjan shines brightest: “Sermon of death says Lucifer is the only conquest, Hurricane heart, hurricane haste”.

Folky, light, delicate vocals are interrupted and complimented by those which are heavily auto-tuned and distorted, enhancing and encouraging the identity of the album. Whilst Sufjan’s natural vocal is hauntingly striking, this alone wouldn’t seem suitable or fitting to accompany the synth driven, sometimes wacky, backing instrumental. Notably, Mars plays to this incredibly successfully. The extra-terrestrial dubbing is somewhat unfamiliar to the more renowned releases from Sufjan, yet the overall tone is so familiar, resonating with iconic sci-fi films.

Nico Muhly’s contributions, however, are what finesse this project and catapult it into a more developed stratosphere. Whilst Sufjan and Bryce both are exceptionally musically capable, Bryce’s beautifully melodic guitar for example is central to Mercury, Muhly’s classical understanding allows this album to swell into the right sphere. Of course, the nostalgic drone-like synths and the reverberating guitar of Bryce are also vital to the character of this project, it is the charmingly delicate yet bravely bold brass and string sections that distinguish this from anything else. Take this away from opening track Neptune for example and the emotive powerfulness somewhat diminishes. The atmospheric, celestial soundscapes developed both in the epic operatic tracks such as the 15 minute extravaganza Earth to the miniature album breaks such as Halley’s Comet, Muhlys embellishing instrumentation is a homage not only to his own style and talent, but to all of the musicians inspiring aptitude.

The greatest downfall, and this is for me is a huge disappointment, is the lack of any traditional chorus or hook that is irresistibly catchy. At no point am I humming along, nor waiting for a refrain, and this is seriously damaging to the final piece. Whilst this is a conceptual progressive album, it is nonetheless damningly frustrating and upsetting that the beautiful hooks of either Sufjan Stevens or The National are entirely absent. There is a great feel to the album that this is in fact a wonderful film score, largely through the input of Muhly, and if it was such it would be a gorgeous example. But this it is not, though hopefully one day it will be.

Nonetheless, this is a project that really works. Super-groups have the potential to be underwhelming and consequently unsatisfying. But Planetarium was well worth the wait. This doesn’t sound like a group of musicians only working together for one album, this feels as though this is another release from a well established group. There is no power struggle for centre stage and accordingly there is a real sense of homogenous cohesion and consistency. Whilst in places the length and splendour of this release is overwhelming, for the most part it is engaging and admirable. Of course the lack of chorus or hook is incredibly disappointing, this should not take away from the truly magnificent soundscapes and sense of adventure found throughout this release.