Sufjan Steven's 'Planetarium' Lacks Gravity
    • TUESDAY, JUNE 27, 2017

    • Posted by: Jack Labbe

    Planetarium is an album that was co-composed by Sufjan Stevens, The National's Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and Sufjan's drummer James McAlister. The project dates back to 2011, when experimental composer Nico Muhly was commissioned to compose a new work for Muziekgebouw Eindhoven in the Netherlands, the group was formed to aid in the shared goal of composing a soundtrack for our solar system. Last year these compositions were revisited in a studio setting to give us this album.

    The 76-minute, 17 track album aims to create a different sound and lyrical concept for each celestial entity ranging from a 15 minute composition entitled "Earth" to shorter song length composition's like "Neptune," "Pluto," and "Moon." While the conceptual idea of creating a different composition for each planet is interesting, the album runs out of steam before it really gets going anywhere. The line that Planetarium toes between song and composition results in the failure of both forms.

    The electronic and orchestral textures created by Muhly are immense and seem at times like they would lend themselves better to a futuristic blockbuster than a commercially released album. However, whenever Sufjan Steven's processed voice reappears, it makes you aware that this project needs to be considered to as a part of his catalogue. This type of large scale project is nothing new for Sufjan. Remember the "50 State Project" where he was going to write a different album for each of the 50 states? We got Michigan and Illinois. Then there was Enjoy Your Rabbit, a song cycle based on the Chinese zodiac signs, and The BQE, a symphonic arrangement accompanying a video of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Planetarium will fit in with these projects, however the lack of direction and overwhelmingly dense size of the project struggles to paint a clear idea of what is being said about our solar system and what we should take away from the project.

    The singles "Mercury" and "Saturn" are clear favorites, giving space for Sufjan's songwriting talents to shine and creating memorable melodies and lyrics around mythological associations and more personal experiences. The rest of the album appears as though it would stand best as a live composition experience, or maybe a as the soundtrack for commercial space travel ventures, which is the future!

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