Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister: Planetarium

Although overly padded and repetitious at times, Planetarium is a poignant, adventurous, and highly promising debut.
Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister

Sufjan Stevens has always been a special artist, as he commonly merges three distinct personas — dejected singer/songwriter, magnificent orchestral arranger, and wacky electronic wizard — into his remarkably diverse and determined efforts. While all of Stevens’ studio LPs share certain trademarks, almost none are notably alike, making him about as singular and varied as they come. It’s no surprise, then, that he’s also been involved in many collaborations over the years.

Case in point: Planetarium, the wildly adventurous debut effort of a nameless new project that includes him, guitarist Bryce Dessner (The National), composer Nico Muhly, and drummer James McAlister. Built around Stevens’ reflections on “mythology, astrology, science, astronomy and the intricacies of human consciousness”, its fusion of the aforementioned styles alongside those of his three partners simultaneously evokes past triumphs and conjures a fresh direction. Although its share of unappealing tedium occasionally threatens to eclipse its brightest moments, the majority of the suite serves as a captivating unity between four distinguished musical voices.

“Neptune” opens the sequence and ranks as one of the best pieces here. Following a moody frequency, he launches into a characteristic forlorn piano ballad peppered with oddly paced chord movements, heartbreaking falsettos, tragic philosophical reflections (“Oh forgive me, oh gods / Or forgive me in fortune / Forgive me in feeling it out for myself”), and delicate, spacey strings. Its quintessential Stevens, an aural representation of beautiful isolation. Afterward, “Jupiter” actually recalls “Vesuvius” from The Age of Adz melodically, and it’s filled with delightful otherworldly textures and effects that rub against a consistent beat. Near the end, the electronic influence takes over, resulting in many bizarre and lively modulations.

Another highlight is “Mars” as it contains some of the most alluring, colorful, and playful arrangements on Planetarium (especially its opening passage). In a way, it feels like a lost Flaming Lips composition, and it’s an exquisite example of how magical the quartet can be when working together. Later, “Moon” finds Stevens issuing dreamy proclamations underneath dazzling timbres and fun rhythmic bleeps-and-bloops. It’s a relatively soft track that’s easy to get lost in. On the other hand, “Pluto” is intensely regal, with horns and strings providing a dramatic film soundtrack in-between his sparse and wistful laments.

Saturn” is as close to hip-hop as Planetarium gets, with Stevens nearly rapping in Auto-Tune as wavering synths and EDM percussion surround him, while the 15-minute “Earth”, although extraneous at times, packs enough intriguing ideas and deviations to work as an effective tour-de-force of all that the record has to offer. It’s no “All Delighted People” or “Impossible Soul”, but it periodically reaches comparable heights. As for closer “Mercury”, it returns to the piano ballad template for a life-affirming gem. Rarely has Stevens sounded so gorgeously fragile and introspective — with lyrics like “And I am sorry / All that I’ve known to be at peace / And I am desperate / You ran off with it all” adding to the meditative ambiguity. Meanwhile, Dessner does a great job of cascading the soundscape with various guitar patterns. Not only is it a stellar way to end, but it’s also a fine example of how simplicity can yield profoundness.

Unfortunately, not every entry on Planetarium is as worthwhile as these. Because it’s meant to flow as a unified concept, there are a lot of instrumental portions, and while some are quite effective in terms of both intrigue and continuity, others simply drag on and feel redundant. In particular, the sequential trio of “Black Energy”, “Sun”, and “Tides” are too similar and lifeless to be engaging. If they were condensed into one track, sure, that could work, but as is, they culminate into roughly ten minutes of dull and wasteful space. That one chunk may not be a big problem, but when equally intolerable flashes are scattered around the 77-minute runtime, it can be quite a chore to get through it all.

Even with these problems, though, the album is quite a fulfilling journey. Obviously, Stevens stands out the most because he’s the vocalist and lyricist (and to be honest, none of this would be out of place on one of his records). However, Dessner, Muhly, and McAlister certainly shine as well, instilling each track with their signature flairs to yield something legitimately new. Although overly padded and repetitious at times, Planetarium is a poignant, adventurous, and highly promising debut; if the quartet can trim the fat in the future, they’ll truly reach their potential.

RATING 7 / 10