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Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and James McAlister: Planetarium

by Ryan Reed on August 07, 2017

The joke basically writes itself: Long after reneging on his plan to document each of the 50 U.S. states through song, Sufjan Stevens aims for outer space with his new collaborative project, Planetarium. Working with longtime drummer/beat-maker James McAlister, orchestral composer Nico Muhly and The National guitarist Bryce Dessner, Stevens explores themes of mythology, astronomy and human consciousness—a grandiose approach that appropriately mirrors the awe of staring deep into the cosmos. The project dates back to 2012, when a Dutch concert hall commissioned Muhly to craft the expansive piece, which they unveiled that year in Eindhoven. Four years later, between their various projects, Stevens and McAlister tweaked and fleshed out the material for this studio arrangement—a bizarre back-to-back-to-front approach that somehow resulted in a cohesive 76-minute work. After a detour into ramshackle, heartbroken folk with 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, Stevens returns here to the balls-out weirdness of The Age of Adz, another LP that paired electronic production with symphonic warmth. Planetarium is bookended by a pair of plaintive piano ballads, “Neptune” and “Mercury”—but in between, shit gets crazy, as the quartet navigate psychedelic orchestral-rock (“Mars”), chilly electro-pop (“Moon”) and cinematic synth ambience (“Sun”). The madness peaks with 15-minute epic “Earth,” full of grandiose noise, glitchy drums and an auto-tuned “Hallelujah” choir. It may be coincidental, but the album feels like Adz’ direct sequel—the expanded IMAX director’s cut of the original standard feature. On paper, Planetarium reads like an overblown, all-star train wreck. In your headphones, it sounds like a new dimension.
Authors: Ryan Reed
Artist: Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and James McAlister
Album: Planetarium