Planetarium, being an album about our solar system is just as ambitious and cinematic as you would expect. However, with a line-up of artists as impressive as this, along with the mystifying subject matter of our universe, it is underwhelming when some tracks don’t live up to the potential.
Consisting of Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and James McAlister, Planetarium has been a project in the works since the non-official group toured together performing some of the tracks from what now is the actual album across the world between March and July 2012. This was performed live by everyone except Sufjan’s drummer James McAlister whom has been credited for the official studio release. Each have their own musical careers either as solo artists or in another bands, as for example, Bryce Dessner being the guitarist for The National who have a new upcoming album out September 8th. Most notably however, is Sufjan Stevens whose profound career undeniably places him as the centre piece of the album.
Like all Sufjan Stevens’ projects, the lyrical themes revolve heavily around religion, myths and love, and Planetarium is no different. The album starts with Neptune, a very soothing opener that demonstrates how the planets tie into the lyrics of each track with a lot of emphasis on Roman and Greek mythology. In addition to this, Neptune also exemplifies the albums cinematic and orchestral approach that continues throughout the record. This then transitions into Jupiter, a standout track which sounds extremely similar to Sufjan’s album The Age of Adz. The instrumentation is bold and epic with a beat switch that takes an ominous turn followed by short direct lyrics in a heavily distorted voice with added electronic elements interrupted by heavy drum synths and then re-joined by catchy lyrics ‘Say it with faith / Say it with force / Say it to my face / Put me in place’ that are sung with powerful conviction. Like Neptune, Jupiter ends with bellowing horns that add to the cinematic atmosphere.
However, the group’s bold approach in instrumentation doesn’t always come off successfully. The sixth track Mars is equally as long and as ambitious as Jupiter, however, its experimental nature makes it hard to digest, with so much going on instrumentally along with Sufjan’s distorted vocals (this time not as fitting), the result is a combination of sounds that end up in an orchestrated mess. One could argue that this is actually appropriate seeming as Mars is the Greek god of war so perhaps it does require an arrangement of chaos in order to enhance the madness of war, but this might be a little too much.
Furthermore, Planetarium features frequent ambient interludes that vary in length. These tracks help to create a dreamy atmosphere that immerses the listener into imagining a space setting. Black Energy sounds very Brian Eno Apollo: Atmosphere and Soundtracks inspired, the track Sun captures the beautiful wonders of space, and the synth driven Tides sounds like they could feature nicely on a Stranger Things soundtrack. However, following these three ambient tracks in a row, the album’s second half leaves a lot to be desired. The ambient pieces, aside from the menacing yet painfully short Black Hole, begin to feel repetitive and even tracks including Sufjan such as Moon and Pluto, although pleasant to listen to, leave little impression.
One of the clear standouts of the second half of Planetarium purely based on its whopping 15-minute length is the track Earth. This track strongly resembles that of Impossible Soul off of The Age of Adz for its track length and progression, yet is executed less impressively. The first four minutes of ambience requires a lot of patience considering the amount of ambient led interludes up to this point. However, as Sufjan’s part progresses the song gets greater in both senses of the word. After the cultivating verse ending in ‘Lord I pray for us, hallelujah’ follows another tone change which is calmer and backed by continuous repetition of ‘Run, mission, run / Before we arrive’.
Finally, finishing the album off is the second single released during the promotion of the record: Mercury. This beautiful piano ballad showcases the best of the album in its simplicity. The track also fittingly ends with a 2-minute outro of instrumentation that encapsulates the album as a whole elegantly.
Overall, at its best, Planetarium is a spectacle to be admired and fits its spacey theme to a tee. At its worst, there’s a over use of distorted vocals which can put off listeners as well as being forgettable in places. A mixed bag that is difficult to dissect quite like the universe itself.