Aficionados of the musical artists Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister have a great treat in store. The quartet’s much anticipated June 9th release “Planetarium” represents a convergence of musical brilliance. It has been a bit of a long haul for each of the contributors in bringing the project to fruition. They have worked on the project over a period of years. The endeavor has gone through many phases often feeling complete only to be revisited and reworked. “Planetarium” is now finished and is best characterized as an expansive song cycle created by some of the most gifted musicians of our time. They explore the cosmos by utilizing soundscapes, science and mythology.
Each of the co composers has significant renown in music world. Sufjan Stevens is a critically and commercially acclaimed indie/alternative artist with numerous albums to his credit including his latest effort the magnificent “Carrie and Lowell”. Stevens is almost as well known for his prolific collaborative habits as he is for his genre hopping solo efforts. Bryce Dessner is a composer/guitarist best know as a member the band The National. He has composed Orchestral Chamber music including commissions for the LA Philharmonic and Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has collaborated with Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Jonny Greenwood and Sugimoto among many others. Nico Muhly is a Contemporary Classical composer/arranger who has worked with Bjork, Philip Glass, and Grizzly Bear. He has composed numerous choral ensembles along with film soundtracks. James McAlister has worked with the bands Ester Drang and Aqueduct. He has also recorded with Sufjan on numerous studio efforts and performed in Steven’s live concerts. The depth of the musical curriculum vitae of each of the members of the collaboration assures the listener there are in great hands on this unique release.
The project began when Nico Muhly was commissioned by the Muziekgebouw Eindhoven, a Dutch concert hall, to create a new musical piece. He immediately thought of asking Dessner and Stevens to contribute. The three had known and worked with each other in past collaborations but never on something so ambitious. Each had a part to play; Nico as an experienced composer of music for choirs and symphonic orchestras, Bryce lent his expertise on composition structure and mood, and Sufjan provided vocals, lyrics and large ideas. The final piece of the puzzle was the addition of drummer/percussionist James McAlister. Sufjan brought in James to provide the beats, drums, percussion and electronic sequencing. Sufjan credits McAlister with providing the glue that pieced the tracks together on “Planetarium”. The end result is an enlightened listener’s super project.
With the quartet now established they would quickly create at a feverish pace almost out of control. The project would slow down as each of the contributors would be drawn away to work on other projects. The four would then periodically reconvene to re examine the work in progress for “Planetarium” and usually deconstruct the tracks to their element parts and start again fine tuning, and rerecording. When completed the four friends would literally and figuratively find themselves in different places. Bryce once Sufjan’s neighbor in Brooklyn was now living in Paris. Muhly has globetrottered about the globe on a number of projects and McAlister has been busy on various collaborations. All are fervent in their pride in “Planetarium”.
“Planetarium” is not the latest superband pop release but an enlightened armchair album. It is meant to challenge the listener by intrinsically asking big questions. These questions ponder how human consciousness engages with the divine, depraved, society and self in the context of the universe? It asks some big existential questions; what does it meant to be human and what does that mean in relation to the cosmos? Additional what does it mean to believe in a divine being and what does that divine being require of us? That is some significant thematic heavy lifting for any recording, but if any one can pull it off it is this quartet. The work is filled with triumph and uplift. The means for accomplishing the task are the utilization of lush piano ballads, prog rock political anthems, classical cadenzas and electronic back beats all mixed into a delicious sort of alchemy.
On “Planetarium” the planets and various galactic features are not presented in literal order but are reshuffled. The album begins with “Neptune” and is gloriously ambient with Stevens’ delicate vocals emphasizing the timeless interstellar feel of the selection. The work continues hop scotching through the universe. It also uses numerous approaches, from almost hip hop to choral arrangements. Sufjan’s vocals span from an intricate whisper to spoken word to primal scream. Steven’s does as usual a spectacular job on the lyrics, producing an inspired amalgam of literary allusions and symbolism that drive the listener to investigate farther into background of the lyrical content. Each selection is noteworthy but especially brilliant are the tracks “Jupiter, Venus, Moon and Mars”.
One of my personal favorites is “Sun” which seems to irradiate the heat of the star and capture the elemental essence of the basis for our existence in a song. Additional “Pluto” is captivating with the feeling of how lonely and isolated the dwarf planet is spinning at the edge of our solar system; this is achingly fleshed out with the forlorn nobility of the strings. “Saturn” is another personal favorite with its oscillating sonics and is probably the most approachable song on the release. Not to be missed are the little intermissions of “Hailey’s Comet, Tides, and Kuiper Belt” and the brief but eerily moving “Black Hole”. The mammoth track “Earth” is a composition over 15 minutes in length and probably the most challenging track but also the most rewarding. It is comprised of various sections both instrumental and vocal and it is simply stunning in its scope and beauty. “Planetarium” ends with the moving “Mercury” which is an ode to the universe. This gloriously shimmering track is a lovely way to end a spectacular aural journey.
Fans familiar with any of these artists and their works will not be surprised by the excellent work on offer. Stevens, Muhly, Dessner and McAlister more than fulfill the promise of the project delivering a concentration of their stellar skills to produce an aural work of art. For fans of Stevens, probably the best known artist of the quartet, the release would be best classified within his meter of electronic offerings with the edges smoothed off by his fellow collaborators. Stevens is never precious about his vast vocal skills and here allows them to be morphed and modified whenever necessary to add to the wonder and awe of the effort.
In the end “Planetarium” gives it opinion on the questions posed. It suggests that to be human in our universe is be a total mess and an accident waiting to happen all the while celebrating the creator of the cosmos. “Planetarium” is a fantastic gateway into the various member’s other works. It everything we would expect from this caliber of “Giant Planet” like musicians on an inspired endeavor.