All of the stars and planets are in harmonious orbit in Planetarium – the latest effort from a newly formed supergroup consisting of Sufjan Stevens, composer Nico Muhly, The National’s Bryce Dessner, and percussionist James McAlister. Just as one would expect given the tracklist and runtime of 1 hour and 16 minutes, this album is a lengthy journey through space. Let’s dig into it.
For starters, the album’s flow is generally satisfactory. There is something gratifying about listening to this ethereal, cryptic, sometimes experimental album and imagining yourself gliding through the cosmos. But unfortunately it’s not always a smooth voyage. There are too many moments that feel jarring to the listener; like you hit a bit of space junk as your shuttle cruises past the Asteroid Belt. But by the end of this long album, you don’t have much of a feeling of accomplishment. Was it fun flying through space? Sure. Do you feel like you got anywhere by the time Mercury ends? Not really.
This isn’t to say it’s not enjoyable. The lyrics on Planetarium are a major point of redemption and help the listener make sense of the album’s structure. These lyrics are usually a commingling of Roman mythology and Sufjan’s mystic Christianity. As a whole the lyrics are hauntingly beautiful and point to a much larger picture, one the listener has to put in the leg work to understand. Whether it is learning about the many biblical allusions or the Roman gods whose story many of the songs narrate, don’t expect deciphering these lyrics to be easy. However, Sufjan and co. don’t leave us to figure it all out. There are consistent themes of birth and death, creation and armageddon, hope and despair on Planetarium that can be summed up in the refrain from Earth:
“I see it
The beauty of the earth
On my deathbed
But it’s too late
I’m such an idiot”
The strong lyrics and vocal performance from Stevens on this album are one of the album’s strengths and the vocal delivery often mix well with the atmospheric, ambient music. The songs that have Sufjan singing tend to feel more fleshed out and offer some of the album’s most electrifying and engaging moments. When the stars align on songs like Earth, the listener is treated to a transcendent musical experience that manages to capture the sweeping vastness of the space while simultaneously affirming and exploring human nature.
Some of the best instrumental moments on Planetarium come when our company of space-farers experiment more and get away from their too-often-Space Oddessy-inspired instrumentals. Tracks like Jupiter, with its almost-industrial breakdown about two-thirds of the way through, or Neptune’s angelic vocal delivery provide some of the album’s most jarring and exciting moments. Other tracks in the middle of the album like Pluto decorate the album with splendor – the remarkable orchestra impact provides one last soft instrumental push before the heavy statements/instrumentation on Saturn. The supporting musical structures of these softer tracks, namely Moon, are slightly reminiscent of some instrumentals heard in Sufjan’s Age of Adz but embellished with beautiful guitar tracks and shimmering synths.
However, despite these successes, there are tracks that simply drag and feel like filler. While the trajectory of the album seems to be loosely defined, there are several parts of the album that shake up the listening experience negatively. We were left multiple times feeling like we wanted the album to hurry up and get onto the next song as we were stuck in our space pod listening to sometimes-outdated-sounding twinkles and shimmers that didn’t add much between the standout tracks. Feelings of pure interstellar exile permeate the instrumental tracks such as Sun, Black Energy, and Kuiper Belt as the instrumentals are quickly established, but do not develop into anything more interesting. Some moments were too short to even be remembered. For example, Halley’s Comet is a 30 second song that is completely absorbed by the surrounding standout tracks Jupiter and Venus. These forgettable tracks take away from the overall success of the album and prevent it from standing out like it should.
Bottom line is that we would probably enjoy this album 1000x more if we were actually in space. It’s a beautiful fantasy, that succeeds more often than not with grand and well-executed moments, but drags a little too much for the short attention spans of us earthlings. So here’s hoping to new frontiers. SpaceX Mission to Mars, anyone?
Least Favorite Tracks: Kuiper Belt, Sun, Black Energy
Must-Listens: Earth, Neptune, Jupiter, Pluto, Mercury
Matt Reihing & Jake Paule
(to ground control)