‘Planetarium’ launches classical composition to new heights

Planetarium | 4AD
Grade: A

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Planetarium is a uniquely visceral embodiment of the unknown. A collaborative project between Bryce Dessner, James McAlister, Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens, the album beautifully encapsulates the vital connections between humans and the universe we inhabit with breathtaking precision.

While many artists express fear of the unknown through lyrics — or create dissonant, barren musical landscapes for the listener to inhabit with their own thoughts — Planetarium launches you unapologetically into the abyss. The soft vocal melody in the opening track “Neptune” builds upon itself and the other instruments, swelling until it gives way to a sparse, airy progression with just piano and violin, essentially swiping the floor out from under the listener, leaving them floating weightlessly. This sensation continues throughout the album, pushing and pulling the sound to feel immediate and intense and then all of a sudden distant and longing.

McAlister has been collaborating with Sufjan since Illinois, and his signature percussion style fits well even in a more electronic setting. The tumbling toms and snare on “Venus” compliment the vocals that loop and swirl throughout the track. Dessner (of The National) contributes an understated guitar which shines on the closing track “Mercury,” and the subtle arpeggi envelop the song in a warm melodic coat. Muhly’s compositional strength is the glue that holds the pieces together, and while the music can soar to enormous heights, it never feels directionless.

All four of these musicians are masters of their craft, and the atmosphere they create throughout the record is cinematic in scale. The songs on Planetarium are not only meticulously crafted, but also emotionally potent. Sufjan’s voice is the guiding force throughout, anchoring the massive brass, string and electronic sections to the images and ideas of physical planets.

Planetarium originally featured song titles relating to astrology, but were instead changed to be the planets themselves — a decision that highlights the dichotomy between the lore and physical attributes of these celestial bodies. The blast of glitchy, stuttering electronics at the end of “Jupiter” simulates the giant planet’s Great Red Spot, a chaotic centerpiece to the swirling formlessness of its gaseous form. Sufjan’s lyric “Father of light / Father of death” refers to the mythological Jupiter, king of the gods — a form of parallel structure which gives Planetarium a cohesive and insular feel despite its grand subject matter.

Meanwhile, the instrumental tracks such as “Black Energy” and “Sun” are quietly in motion, with a smooth blend of electronics sweeping in and out, pulsing with subtle movement. The mix of glossy and distorted sounds is like space dust inhabiting the vacuum of nothingness, and every glitch is a reminder of the tangibility of our world.

It is not often that an album is so concerned with the exterior world, far removed from the artists themselves. The musical bombast is met with equally extroverted lyrics, reinterpreting the stories of the ancient Roman gods for the modern era. All the horror, wonder, and uncertainty of existing in a vast, unknowable universe has been condensed into a unique musical experience on Planetarium — one suggesting that the answers to life’s most confounding mysteries can be found just by looking up.

Contact Sam Gunn at [email protected].