Release Date: Jun 9, 2017
Record label: 4AD
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Take three co-commissioning music halls from Belgium, Australia and the UK; add four acclaimed American songwriters, a string quartet, seven trombones, eight planets, a dwarf called Pluto, a star called Sol and a handful of celestial and earthly phenomena; wait five years. The result is Planetarium, a cosmic playlist that toured the world in 2012 after composer Nico Muhly enlisted Sufjan Stevens and the National's Bryce Dessner to pay homage to the solar system. All three had contributed to Stevens' 2009 Run Rabbit Run, and in various ways over the years.
T he 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.
The 'Curio of the Week' award goes to the long-form supergroup of Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and James McAlister and their galactic tapestry Planetarium.As you might expect, the record is a sprawling star chart of celestial, ambient electronica, interspersed with jarring synth and spoken word pieces on the nature of myth, faith and polytheism. Though the themes are far out, the presentation is grounded in recognisable tropes of sci-fi music. Structurally, it's a non-sequential jolly about the Milky Way with a track for each planet, plus visits to our Earth's Moon, the Sun, so-called 'Black Energy', the Kuiper Belt and a long glance back at where it all began ('In the Beginning').
The stars ultimately aligned in the assembly of contemporary classical music composer Nico Muhly with friends Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, and the multidimensional James McAlister for their collaborative project with a far reaching theme. With the cosmos as their muse, the unexpected quartet joined forces to design Planetarium, a concept album years in the making. That concept actually dawned as a performance piece that Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven commissioned Muhly to create.
A s lofty ideas for concept albums go, outer space is one that continues to fascinate beardy musicians. Techno pioneer Jeff Mills has just released Planets, an electronic-classical record inspired by Gustav Holst's orchestral suite of the same name. And from the sensitive indie sphere, there is Planetarium, a 17-track exploration of the solar system from Sufjan Stevens and his drummer, James McAlister, the National's Bryce Dessner and composer Nico Muhly.
The sweeping, celestial-themed musical project that four genius-level musicians brought to the stage several years ago has finally earned a proper album release. Planetarium, co-created by Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner of The National, composer Nico Muhly, and frequent Stevens collaborator and beatmaker James McAlister, brings the four men together for a somewhat free-form project that allowed them to take a loose, adventurous, whirlwind approach to their own creative impulses. The result is expansive and dense, if inconsistent, and scattered with gems.
Try to predict Sufjan Stevens' next move at your own risk. The enigmatic singer-songwriter has always seemed to do what he does musically without any apparent regard for order or expectation. He gained fame for two excellent indie-folk-pop albums themed around the states of Michigan and Illinois, and then never returned to the so-called "50 states project" he touted while promoting them.
One common pitfall with supergroups is that you're usually excited about one member or other, but then their bandmates insist on doing stuff too. So the problem with Tin Machine wasn't David Bowie - the problem was everybody else. The downside of with every band with Jack White in apart from The White Stripes isn't Jack White - it's that he keeps inviting his deadbeat chums to sing.
Planetarium began in 2011 when Muziekgebouw Eindhoven in the Netherlands commissioned a new work from composer Nico Muhly. He, in turn, brought in the National's Bryce Dessner and Sufjan Stevens, who invited collaborator James McAlister to contribute beats. It was last year that Stevens and McAlister revisited these performances in a studio setting, building them out to this 76-minute, seventeen-track album.
For centuries, man has studied the nature of the cosmos, looking to the stars and thinking both spiritually and scientifically about what lies beyond our own atmosphere. Seemingly, it's also a fascination that's captured the imagination of Sufjan Stevens, as well as composer Nico Muhly, drummer James McAlister and The National's Bryce Dessner. Their song cycle 'Planetarium,' which initially kicked off years ago as a single composition, explores the universe and its many celestial bodies. Fittingly, its music is as grand as you'd expect.
A project that began as a commissioned work by the Muziekgebouw Eindhoven for composer Nico Muhly, Planetarium premiered in 2012 but was transformed by the arrival of this collaborative recording five years later. With Muhly, singer/lyricist Sufjan Stevens, the National guitarist Bryce Dessner, and drummer James McAlister receiving equal credit for the music, it also features a string quartet, seven trombonists, a keyboardist, and numerous instrument credits, including synths and programming, by the co-composers. Inspired by the Solar System, Planetarium's 17 tracks are named after celestial objects and related phenomena, with Stevens' often enigmatic lyrics focusing on the subjects of science and Greek and Roman mythology.
Is there any musician performing today as unpredictable and restlessly inventive as Sufjan Stevens? Since his debut record A Sun Came back in 2000, the range of projects he has been involved in has been simply staggering - everything from concept albums about American states (although sadly, it looks like we'll never get the full 50 he promised) to collections of Christmas songs and a multi-media tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Along the way, his breadth of musical styles has been equally diverse, encompassing simple acoustic guitar songs, sprawling electronica, chamber folk and full blown orchestral works. It's anyone's guess what this unique figure will turn his hand to next.
Eternity breaks down into pieces of time. Why are we here? Why are my feelings the size of the sun but they fit into a pocket in my chest the size of a burrito? Why am I alone? Sufjan’s best records have used grandiosity to communicate the intimate (Age of Adz), and intimacy to rewrite the grandiose (Illinois). But here for the first time on Planetarium he uses grandiosity to re-illustrate the grandiose.