Review: Sufjan Stevens, et al., Planetarium

Those who are exclusive fans of the acoustic heartbreak of Carrie and Lowell or the clear storytelling of Illinois will find this record obtuse and abrasive, but those ready to jump into the black hole and see what’s on the other side will find plenty to explore.
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Planetarium cover art

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.

The record launches at soft light speed with “Neptune”, an art pop masterpiece showing in the record in microcosm — beautiful falsetto, minimalist and maximalist guitar and orchestration. The record continues to scale with an indietronica framework, pulsing bass drums, and multi-part indie operatic movements on track 2 — “Jupiter”, and all that before the vocoder choir takes over, and even that is before the harmonizing xylophones, and even that is before the horn section link. Yes, that’s all in one song. On paper that sounds bloated, but just listen, the parts fly by like Kubrick’s lights through the wormhole after the third monolith.

“Uranus” chimes in with Flaming Lips flute synthesizers but very quickly transforms into a despondent ballad with mythical characters and lengthy mysterious movements. But the songs on Planetarium are all dynamic range epics. “Black Energy” is a 5 minute dark ambient passage calling to mind Eno, of course, but even Tim Hecker as it ranges into drone music near the end. Immediately following is “Sun” continuing the ambience with swirling flourishes and sizzling synthesizers. It has the vibe of music being born, like an East of Eden track, like a Korg coming to life and playing itself as it learns its own tones.

These ambient stretches give the record a flavor that differentiates it from others in the Sufjan catalogue. When an ambient stretch is used to give space only, like on the 1975’s record from last year for instance, it fails to bring anything other than a palette cleanser. Here, these hallways and corridors feel integral not only to the progression but to the theme. The “Sun” is strong and bright, and loud while not dominating, “Tides” however is stealthy as it wields its own tonality, finishing up ten straight minutes of instrumental music. Unless you are noting it, you won’t notice this, however, because every minute is so organic, feeling less like a “let’s plug in some space here” and more a perfect ordering of the ideas that grew in the collective mind garden of these musicians.

Of the four billed collaborators, its easy to view this as Sufjan’s record as he wrote the lyrics and melodies, plus Planetarium fits into his main discography a lot clearer than some of the others. But it’s the moments in harmony with each person’s gifts that the record shines the brightest. Nico Muhly’s arrangements, James McAllister’s programming and percussion, Bryce Dessner’s guitar work all together give a fresh coat to Sufjan’s typical tricks.

Those less aware of Sufjan’s trajectory may view portions of this record as a retread into Age of Adz territory, but in reality this is a time capsule from five years ago. Although not all recorded then, this is a piece originally performed in 2012. Rather than veering back in a previous direction, this record is more awesomeness from that period. Those who are solely fans of the acoustic heartbreak of Carrie and Lowell or the clear storytelling of Illinois will find this record obtuse and abrasive, but those ready to jump into the black hole and see what’s on the other side will find plenty to explore here.

Planetarium demands repeated listening, the passages and movements make individual songs stand out less as it is not completely obvious when one track is ending and another is beginning. The record almost sounds modular in the vein of Brian Wilson’s technique on Smile.

There are a dozen other noteworthy moments — the hazy dance-fuzz of “Saturn”, the Michigan flutes on “Moon”, the classic, simple strumming on “Mercury”. Planetarium is more like an entire career of work jammed into a record, than a mere discography step. Musically — a summation statement, lyrically — stretching the galaxy, it moves with light speed from Greek mythology to astronomy to our own feelings tucked inside our skin, and as usual, many are told through the lens of faith and belief in something bigger, something better.

The amount of Biblical references in this record are few but poignant — “The curse of Adam — labor,” in reference to the prototype of humanity, made famous for screwing up the universe by eating from the forbidden tree. Although Adam was given work before the fall, after he was cursed by God with “toil”. “Mars” asks the question — “Will they see the Lord?”, searching for the transcendent. Even the song title “In the Beginning”, the first words in the Bible, as the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters and God speaks mountains onto the horizon.

Sufjan represents a new strain of faith commentary that spends more time answering the question of what than the question of how. The most concentrated allusions to faith occur on the monumental, fifteen-minute “Earth”. “Innocence was never lost, though it may have been insulted,” Sufjan delicately sings through mirrors of delay and layers of fuzz before he gets to the meat of the song — “we, in turn, avenge the author.” Projecting our own fears, failures, faults and frustrations upon the one who knocked over the first domino, eventually leading to you. He later addresses the supreme artist and author with a Hebrew word of adoration repeating — “Allelujah” — meaning, literally, “praise you, the Lord.”

The record ends with simplicity. A strummed pattern that could have started any one of Sufjan’s classics. A MINUS