Song of the Spheres – A Review of Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, James McAlister, and Bryce Dessner’s “Planetarium”

Much like the solar system itself, there’s almost too much going in Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, James McAlister, and Bryce Dessner’s utterly epic Planetarium. Truth be told, this was always going to be the case. With a pedigree like that – four incredibly talented musicians each known for their own style of meticulous orchestration – it’s no wonder that their joint album is almost too much to handle. It is an album that sonically and lyrically attempts to reflect humankind’s contemplation of our little corner of the universe, in all its vastness as well as its isolation. At once dizzyingly grand and yet deeply personable, it is a beautiful record of existentialism and exhaustion. In other words, it’s exactly what we would expect for these musicians to create.

The fearless crew.

Originally commissioned by the Dutch music hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven in 2012, the group played a handful of live performances and left the rest of the world desperate for more than second hand YouTube videos. All fell silent for a few years while each artist released various projects and most of us assumed the project would be left to fable. Luckily for us, the group maintained hope for reuniting and giving it a proper recording, offering us a truly unique and genuinely mind blowing album 5 years later.

For many, this will be seen as a Sufjan Stevens project. They’re not wrong, necessarily, as he certainly comes across as the conductor to an extent with the overall tone landing somewhere between The BQE and Age of Adz. But even within that large of a sonic pallet, there is far more going on here than Sufjan’s lofty influence. From the jittered cacophony of McAlister’s beats to the soaring symphonic heights of Nico’s arrangements and the delicate dance of Dessner’s guitar, there is plenty here for fans of each to love. Honestly, even though there are times where the record meanders a bit or feels, again, genuinely overwhelming, it’s nothing short of a miracle that they were able to create such a cohesive album out of so much. It’s really a testament to creative cooperation.

But don’t let the daunting prospect of the album scare you off. It might echo the existential angst one might feel in contemplating one’s place in the universe but it just as easily conveys the sense of beauty such meditation provides. Immediately, there is an undeniable holiness to the affair with the ethereal meandering of opening track “Neptune.” As an introduction, it sets the tone of the record flawlessly: exquisite, pondering, and borderline angelic.

This lofty, lilting intro, however, leads immediately into album stunner “Jupiter” – a heavy, pounding beast of a song fit for praise of Jove. Much like our giant neighbor, this song lumbers about with an imposing presence, mesmerizing and monstrous. About ¾ of the way through, the song breaks wide open with some truly hectic and jarring beats via McAllister, raging like Jupiter’s tempests and shattering any sense of calm the listener might have felt before hand – it is truly awe inspiring. It also contains one of the most Sufjan lines to ever Sufjan as he cries out in anguish: “Jupiter is the loneliest planet.” Like many of his lines that might at first strike absurd, there is a vulnerability and heart felt longing in this refrain – something only Sufjan could accomplish.

Lyrically, the album is really a testament to Sufjan’s skill as a spiritual songwriter. Taking humankind’s various mythological meditations on the planets, various religious symbology, and perennial philosophy, Sufjan accomplishes exactly what he set out to do – explore the consciousness of man through the lens of the planets. At times it can be a bit esoteric and dense but, more often than not, it is invitingly tantalizing, enlarging the smallness of our human concerns to a universal scale. It is is easy to imagine this being written during the same period of Age of Adz, the current pinnacle of Sufjan’s philosophical prowess. It covers many of the same themes of sense of self and spiritual belonging and does so with fear and trembling.

Another standout track, “Venus”, provides what just might be Sufjan’s most sexual song yet. For a certain subset of fans, this will almost certainly provide more fuel for a curious fire but, regardless of the aim of intended affections, it is one of Sufjan’s most affective accomplishments. Utilizing the innocence of his Christian upbringing against the complications of maturing relations (previously explored to devastating effect on the classic “Casimir Pulaski Day”), Sufjan crafts an ode to the awkwardness of sexual exploration. It is at once in devoted praise of the goddess Venus, her mythic wiles and flirtations with the hearts of man, and yet seeks to dismantle the human inclination to attach to sex anything more than it is. Sufjan is not sure “if touching’s no sin” and, if we’re honest with ourselves, very few of us ever were at the start. Love and affection, invitation and vulnerability, are terrifying prospects in the innocence of our youth – Sufjan has crafted a love song here devoted to this very moment of crossing, or stumbling rather, blindly forward into mature relationships. It’s really quite an inspired way to sing Venus’ praise.

All planets are accounted for here including a handful of instrumental tracks devoted to the Kuiper Belt as well as to Dark Matter. From the swaying groove of “Moon” to the 14-minute epic “Earth”, these four artists cover themes from the romantic to the macabre.  This review would have – and easily could have – been a multi part reflection on each song with as much as they have to offer. This album will almost certainly not work for everyone but, for those willing to give it a try, you will find a nearly boundless plethora of material to mediate on. Just strap in and prepare for take off.