Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, James McAlister: Planetarium review – masters of the universe

Grandeur meets digital mayhem on this heavenly suite of songs about our solar system, updated since its live debut five years ago

The planets probably just roll their eyes at all the musical tributes that we puny humans pay them. It is, though, a particularly poignant coincidence that this album is being released as the US president disavows the Paris climate agreement. Our special snowflake of a green orb just became an even more inhospitable place for life to endure.

Composer/arranger Nico Muhly, the National’s multitasker Bryce Dessner, Michigan bard Sufjan Stevens and his go-to percussionist James McAlister began this project back in 2011, when Muhly took on a commission from the Muziekgebouw Eindhoven that sounded like a dare: write a song cycle for seven trombones and string quartet. They toured this ambitious version of Planetarium in the UK in 2012, playing under a giant sphere that took on the visual aspect of the planet the ensemble were hymning: blue Venus, a stately romp about a sexual awakening at Methodist summer camp (Stevens is very much the mouthpiece of the project), or blood-red Mars, a vocoder-laced dystopian piece about war.

Now, in the wake of Carrie & Lowell (Stevens’s extraordinary 2015 album), the National’s 2013 set Trouble Will Find Me (another is due this September) and Muhly’s ceaseless output, the four have finally revisited the planets. The finished item lacks, perhaps, the seat-of-pants drama of the orchestral tour, when a dozen-plus musicians and tons of mischievous gear created slightly different orbits every night.

Here are new passages – ambient snippets such as Halley’s Comet or longer interludes like Kuiper Belt – and almost every planet has been sonically overhauled, with trombones downplayed in favour of gaseous new vibes. Venus is transformed – more abstractedly electronic – with Stevens particularly relishing the word “callipygian” (classical speak for “nice arse”) in his effects-laden vocals; Jupiter is similarly cranked up; Mars is much groovier and the robot version of Stevens owes a little to Daft Punk.

As you might expect from four men who don’t shy away from expansive, detailed projects, this finished item packs grandeur and – considering the default orchestral indie politeness of the players – considerable digital mayhem, with only the slightest feeling that Muhly et al might have a preset labelled “shimmering awe”. Indeed, the more you listen, the more Planetarium recalls Stevens’s glitchy, Auto-Tuned The Age of Adz album. Myth and science, astrology and astronomy, the personal and the political, religion and the profane commingle: like most cultural products about space, from Star Trek to the Sun Ra Arkestra, the Planetarium songs are actually about earthly situations, with classical mythology a springboard for Stevens’s concerns.

The “awe” dial is set to stun during the opening five minutes of Earth, the planet on which some of the album’s most notable passages unfurl – bucolic interludes, clanking dance music and Stevens’s elliptical closing words. (“But it’s too late,” he whispers.) As though to prove the point that in pondering heavenly bodies we only analyse ourselves, Earth receives 15 minutes’ running time – talk about geocentric.

Watch the video for Saturn.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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