Space is a real place, but we Earthlings mostly experience it as a backdrop, a trivia trove, a fantasy landscape, and a metaphor. In the cultural imagination, space can seem like just a version of not-space—how many interstellar voyage movies are really about family issues on the third rock from the Sun?
The new album Planetarium embraces the way that space serves as humankind’s depository for stray ideas and symbols. Singer Sufjan Stevens, contemporary-classical composer Nico Muhly, guitarist Bryce Dessner, and percussionist James McAlister first created these songs to perform live in 2012, executing on a commission Muhly had received from the Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven. The tracklist has an entry for each of our solar system’s planets, for other celestial features (“Kuiper Belt,” “Halley’s Comet”), and for abstractions (“In the Beginning”). A collider of classical music, rock, and electronica, Planetarium is unfailingly ambitious and intermittently dazzling. Perhaps most surprisingly, it’s also deeply unsettling in its use of planetary metaphor.
Stevens is famous for his soft quaver and his penchant for fiercely committing to concrete concepts, whether that concept is an album about the state of Michigan or an album about the death of his mother. Fans will hear much of his past work echoing here. The tentative piano and off-kilter vocal phrasing of the opener “Neptune” is in the mode of 2005’s “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois,” the intro to his most popular album (and no, of course, this isn’t his first brush with the extraterrestrial). The mix of lumbering trombones, synth twinkles, and manipulated vocals throughout recall his 2010 dance-prog monument Age of Adz. A few passages of hyperactive drum programming evoke the early-career experiments of Enjoy Your Rabbit. And the stunning, tender closer “Mercury” would have fit on his most recent work, the spare and sad Carrie & Lowell.