A Musical Voyage Through the Solar System, Darkly

Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, and James McAlister’s bombastic Planetarium uses outer space to consider human folly.

A still from the 'Saturn' video
A still from the 'Saturn' video (4AD)

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.

But the typical Stevens stuff is sprinkled into far knottier, less pop-oriented landscapes than usual. Presumably this is partly thanks to Muhly (the current era’s leading go-between for cutting-edge classical music and cutting-edge rock), Dessner (of the mordant, mood-making band The National), and McAlister (a frequent Stevens collaborator). It’s the kind of album where your attention drifts away during extended passages of ambient burbling, but then you awake to something thrilling and strange: The industrial barrage that closes “Jupiter,” the violent stabs of “Mars,” the movie-climax strings of “Pluto,” the R2-D2 whistles of “Kuiper Belt.” Stevens has been consistent in writing gemlike pop songs, but this effort asks to be considered more as a collection of moments and moods.

Drawing upon the vocoder’s association with the otherworldly, Stevens spends much of the record running his voice through machines. And rather than spin fully formed narratives, his lyrics tend towards abstraction and words for sound’s sake. But it’s clear, always, he’s writing about the planets’ cultural connotations, especially as reflected in the Greco-Roman gods who are each sphere’s namesake. You’re quickly reminded of how brutal their stories are. For “Saturn,” a divine devourer of his own children pleads for understanding while the glittering arrangement transforms from pure sound sculpture into disco throwdown. “Mars” has the god of war warning “Put away your sword!” as the band evokes a festive weapons workshop.

Stevens’s fascination with mythology blurs with other planetary-related preoccupations, too. “Venus” has him meditating on lust by referencing the Methodist summer camp where he had his first sexual experience. “Jupiter” wrings emotion from the scientific fact of the largest planet being a failed star. The lullaby-like “Mercury,” the most straightforward and playlistable thing here, could be addressed to happiness itself: “Where do you run to?,” Stevens asks as layers of reverberating voice and piano seem to knit ornate webs.

Then there’s “Earth,” the 15-minute homecoming that’s the second to last song on the album. Minutes upon minutes unfold with strings and synths droning patiently: prehistory? Then what sounds like a siren goes off. A distorted Stevens enters the mix along with a serene flute, and he pronounces, “Innocence was never lost, though it may have been insulted.” His verses culminate in prayers, and later the song mutates into a hip-hop chantalong—“run, nation, run, before we arrive”—that might be cheering on the demise of civilization itself. For the creepy denouement, Stevens whispers into the mic as tape sounds zip by: “I see it, the beauty of the earth, on my death bed. But it's too late. I'm such an idiot.”

It’s one of many times when an album whose concept may seem escapist becomes a heavy reminder of mortal toil. Often, Stevens’s tales of betrayal and brutal violence between gods don’t really feel like myths at all, and the chaos of the music around him can seem equal parts fanciful sound experiment and depiction of psychic torment. It’s hard to ignore that in the Trump era, Stevens has been writing blog posts about national hubris, and in interviews he’s encouraged reading Planetarium’s years-old lyrics in the context of current events, adding that Earth is “a real survivalist, and we’re lucky to be on her team, in spite of our worst intentions.” It seems that with this project, art has once again telescoped out to the cosmos in order to make a statement about humanity. The twist is that amid the bombast and play of Planetarium, the statement may be one of condemnation.