A project as expansive as Planetarium would have to be a collaboration. Originally a commission for American composer Nico Muhly, the album grew to draw upon the efforts of composer Bryce Dessner of The National, singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, and drummer James McAlister to explore the expanse of the cosmos. Like a lone planet in space, the voice of Stevens serves as our guide: his voice is surrounded by a richly textured amalgamation of electronica, guitar arrangements, and orchestral trombones. Planetarium, held together by a deep emotional pull, makes gorgeous melodies from human attempts to explain the universe.
In exploring mankind’s relationship with outer space, Planetarium tries to imprint the personal on the planets. Venus, an ode to the planet and goddess of love, doubles as a sensual ballad of love and lust that fans of Stevens will recognise without doubt (“Methodist summer camp/you show me yours, show you mine”). Gentle and lilting, the track is as much a celebration of love as it is a grievance against it. Venus is imagined here in the form of a watchful goddess; Stevens can only appeal to her for guidance as he navigates new love. The song is slow and sensitive, capturing the essence of the mythological Venus through the lens of personal experience and emotions.
Mixing mythical persona with the deeply personal isn’t easy, however – particularly when Steven’s Christian faith has always been deeply ingrained in his work. Jupiter, calling on the patriarch of Roman faith to summon an earthly father, seems convoluted with its mess of ideas: verses jump from Adam and Lucifer to Jupiter and Minerva, with scant details of setting that might firmly anchor a narrative. As one of the tracks that pays more attention to the physical attributes of its eponymous planet, with references to its “red right eye,” and “hurricane heart,” Jupiter becomes too broad and fails to have the emotional impact that Stevens should by now be notorious for.
However, the addition of lyrics doesn’t detract from the compositions of the album. The tenderness of the conversational Pluto (“My little eyeshadow/ Bruised by the moon’s battle”) is elevated by soaring, romantic strings and thudding percussion. The experience of Muhly and Dessner, who between them have worked composing for cathedral choirs and orchestras, adds a reverent and grand tone that complements the themes of the lyrics. Uranus, for example, is made solemn by harmonising Steven’s voice to form a one-man choir, with a procession of trombones building to the second verse. Neptune too is remarkable in its ability to mimic the swell and fall of sea tides through the varying speeds of piano chords.
Some tracks on the album are fully instrumental. Regrettably, it soon becomes clear that these interludes serve only to lead onto the next lyrical track. Atmospheric though they are, instrumental tracks such as Halley’s Comet and Tides end abruptly without their own fulfilment. Kuiper Belt is a highlight of the instrumental numbers: it stands out as a fully developed, fun, retro sounding instrumental track. It sounds like it could have been pulled from an old video game, and perhaps that’s the point – we’re still as in awe of space as we always have been.
In this way, Planetarium doesn’t always take itself too seriously, which is one of its virtues. Songs like Mars and Saturn may explore humanity’s relation to the violence in our nature and the violence of the gods, but using a vocoder to distort Steven’s voice into something that sounds like a particularly talented R2-D2 adds an element of playfulness.
Both songs should also be praised for their unique portrayals of classical myth, which is a reoccurring strength of the album. Mars takes an interesting stance on war, pointing out the importance of the things that we take up arms for (“The things we do for love”). And despite lyrics that detail a Graeco-Roman god’s unabashed addiction to cannibalism-cum-filicide, Saturn becomes a strangely feel good track, brightened by McAlister’s punchy drumming. A rise of electronic notes elevates the song and adds a burst of energy to the album.
Earth is naturally one of the album’s signature tracks, and at fifteen minutes, is also its longest. Deeply melancholic, fretful, and poignant, Earth doesn’t feel like fifteen minutes. Transitioning smoothly from sweeping trombones and choral lament into anxious, electronic ticking, Earth is both foreboding and remorseful. It ends simply with a verse that begins, “I see it/the beauty of the Earth,” and ends, “But it’s too late/I’m such an idiot.” Concluding with these breathy lines and layers of thick chords, Earth points to our own mistakes and inescapable mortality, tied with the Earth’s.
But the album doesn’t end here, as Earth is Planetarium’s penultimate track. The album ends with Mercury. This song feels like a resurrection after the tragedy of the previous track. A bounce of piano notes, like Mercury the messenger god’s running shoes, carries hope beneath the wistful lyrics of the song (“You ran off with it all,” is repeated throughout).
Perhaps the human race is lost and uncertain, and some of us may feel the same way in our personal lives, but ending Planetarium with Mercury implies that there is still a path to follow: “Carrier, friend/ Where do you run to?”. Though the route may be unclear, there is still room to move forward and time to right our wrongs.
Planetarium feels like modern man’s attempt to draw closer to the unintelligible cosmos. Whether finding humanity in the planets or finding gods amongst us, Planetarium searches for the common core of human life and ends tentatively, but hopefully: the human spirit is forever striving for more and refuses to be quashed. The album is perfect for getting lost in your head or lost amongst the stars – from the comfort of our very own planet Earth.
Image courtesy of PLANETARIUM website.