Like all great works of science fiction, ‘Planetarium’ projects our most earthbound fears into the cosmos. Sufjan Stevens and a constellation of members from The National and his own touring band have fused to produce this 90-minute epic that re-imagines Stevens’ ‘Age Of Adz’ as the soundtrack for a cosmic Fantasia.
If you’d pitched me this record earlier this year, I would have told you that a 75-minute album about the solar system and, I guess, having sex with the planets in it(?) couldn’t work.
But therein lies the Stevens touch. Sufjan has duped us before turning an uninspiring collaboration with Son Lux and Serengeti into the most mellow hip-hop album of 2014 as well as squeezing the beauty and longing out of Drake’s sterile ‘Hotline Bling’.
Taking notes from Gustav Holst’s famous ‘The Planets’ composition, Sufjan (et al) break each member of our celestial system down into musical bodies and tie themes of intimacy, war and the failings of parental figures to ambient instrumentals.
Outside of Sufjan’s warbly croons, it’s easy to overlook the other contributions to this album but that’s, for the most part, where the majority of the colour and captivation derives from. The National’s Bryce Dessener, it must be said, really comes through with some stellar guitar work with the twinkling arpeggios on ‘Pluto’ to toned-down and electronic melodic accompaniments on tracks like ‘Earth’ and ‘Venus’.
Nico Muhly’s influences burns brightest. however. His orchestral compositions and string sections are the red shift that keeps the album in flow and consistently compensates for the lack of forefront melody. While Stevens will wax tragic for seven minutes in the same range, Muhly’s horns and strings create atmosphere and give life and charisma to an occasionally over-indulgent set of pieces.
For the most part, the record warrants its own expansiveness as themes of self-doubt, isolation and faith slowly supernova among dazzling ambient instrumentals, careening string sections and Sufjan’s warped vocals that bring harmony, hope and futurism to the cold, dense expanse of space.
Words: Will Butler
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