As the product of such a unique meeting of minds, Planetarium would be a worthy listen even it failed to live up to expectations. Luckily, this effort encapsulates the potential so many collaborative records fall short of, expanding the work of each musician involved through a cohesive solar systemic concept. Sufjan Stevens’ 17 years in indie music has solidified him as one of the more interesting personalities and talented musicians in the scene. Other than 2005’s infamously diverse opus Illinois and 2015’s straightforward and stripped down Carrie & Lowell, Stevens’ forays into IDM, synth-pop and celtic folk solidify him as a creative force to be reckoned with. In a similar way, Bryce Dessner has emerged from the alt-country scene to become a leading force in the post punk revival as the guitar player in mid-west heavyweights The National. A collaboration between these two might seem like a match made in heaven, but that’s only half of the story with this 75-minute epic. James McAlister’s nuanced rhythms and clinical production have graced anything from post-rock to CCM, while Nico Muhly’s mind-bending contributions to contemporary classical music sport enveloping strangeness. Each of the four perspectives contributed remains distinct while melting into an entirely new animal. Clocking in at 75 minutes with 17 tracks, Planetarium is not casual listening. Lyrical themes traverse interstellar musings and theological inquiries, as Stevens uses the mythology of each heavenly body as a springboard into personal reflection. Even the three singles differ from one another atmospherically, instrumentally and rhythmically, with “Venus” delivering glitchy beats and trickling synths over Sufjan’s soothing voice, “Saturn” making spectacular use of autotune and IDM drops and the concluding “Mercury” embracing a more familiar strain of tripped out indie rock. Although disjointed as separate listens, the full album experience reveals how these cuts fit snuggly into a stargazing narrative. “Neptune” starts Planetarium with a piano ballad, allowing the album to start and end in safer waters. Muhly’s orchestral imput teases expansivity, something “Jupiter’s” rumbling bass synth and plodding beats capitalize on with futuristic bombast. This track’s hypnotic groove and evolving crescendos provide the perfect backdrop for Sufjan’s processed vocal performances, which shape-shift to fit this album’s sonic palette. “Halley’s Comet,” “Black Hole” and “In The Beginning” represent Planetarium’s full-fledged ambient leanings, which actually emphasize Muhly’s presence on the record. Minimalist classical music finds common ground with lushly ornamented swells and intricately layered soundscapes accentuating a strong otherworldly undercurrent prevalent in every track. Though the identity of each musician is less noticeable in these tracks — especially during the three-track run of “Black Energy,” “Sun” and “Tides” — the album’s flow remains intact with in hyper sleep bliss. The quartet reaches their collective apex during tracks making use of every present element. “Uranus” and “Mars” ride the line between orchestral and synthetic music more fervently. The former features strings and horns blaring through trip-hop beats, celestial guitar and keyboard layering and choral-esque vocal reprises, which flows seamlessly into the latter’s densely rhythmic use of brass-laden staccatos, startling electronic dynamism and alien vocal effects. However, “Moon” and “Pluto” provide a more reserved take on this sonic amalgamation through passionate dream pop and classical ambient respectively. Though certainly different, there’s enough clarity in the performances to earn their place on the record. Even the instrumental “Kuiper Belt,” while not particularly memorable, serves as a transition between two distinct sections of the record. The monstrous “Earth” more than merits its 15 minutes as a true space music masterpiece. Multifaceted, cynematic and triumphant, this track sums up the singular accomplishment of Planetarium. Sufjan, Dessner, McAlister, and Muhly pour both their emotions and their musicality into this album, and it reaches an its paragon here. Unpredictable beat inflections, perfectly placed sound manipulations, and transcend modulations allow this track to explore the emptiness and dazzling glory of celestial landscapes. Although its sprawling nature can make it hard to follow at times and could have used more definitive input from the musicians involved, Planetarium still reaches towards sublimity — the handiwork of four creative powerhouses in independent music.
Planetarium | Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister