It’s only appropriate, and perhaps even necessary, that a collaborative project to boast such powerhouses in their respective fields should display a similar sense of grandiosity and audacity in its concept. After all, as much as the formation of a new supergroup tends to pique the interest of the music community upon its announcement, very few leave a lasting impression that is not weathered over time. This may occasionally arise from the fact that certain collaborations are conceived as a business move, as a means of introducing each individual artist to the respective fan bases of their partners, with the resultant project often not living up to the initial hype generated at the thought of such respected auteurs conglomerating their creative powers. However, in the case of Planetarium, a 76-minute conceptual epic inspired by the Solar System, spearheaded by contemporary classical composer Nico Muhly and aided by indie folk angel Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner of The National fame and prolific session drummer James McAlister, this experimental supergroup surely cannot be accused of lacking in ambition. Having been commissioned for Muhly by the Muziekgebouw Eindhoven six years ago, Planetarium has been in existence long before its first time pressed to vinyl. Initially premiered in 2012, the first recording of this project witnesses Muhly and the original artists he enlisted reconvene in a studio setting, with the additional assistance of an army of strings, trombones, keyboards, synths and various other instruments, in order to bring the composer’s cosmological creation to life. With each of the four main musical masterminds behind this colossal undertaking being credited in equal measure, placing Planetarium in context with the artists’ recent work is somewhat necessary, particularly in the case of Stevens, with this album being his first full-length endeavour since his cathartic and highly personal Carrie & Lowell from 2015, which many, including myself, now consider his magnum opus. Given that the initial premiere of Planetarium lies between the release of his previous album and its predecessor, The Age of Adz, the fact that Stevens’ lyrical explorations across the album — which generally evoke our current scientific understanding of the cosmos, whilst also touching heavily on the Graeco-Roman mythology and iconography associated with each planet — anchor such a gargantuan topic in human emotions and experiences perhaps alludes to through-lines between the philosophical underpinnings of both Planetarium and Carrie & Lowell, despite the timbre of the former being much more grandiose and decadent. Indeed, with this project being so vast in artistic and thematic scope, it seems as if Stevens, Muhly, Dessner and McAlister pulled out all the stops in order to potently elevate their respective experimental stylings to an entirely new and uncharted cosmic plateau. Yet, the end product teeters past the point of the monumental magnificence for which the musicians seemed to be striving and is, instead, crushed under its own conceptual weight, coming together in a rather cluttered and inconsistent fashion that leaves the album feeling rather bloated, especially given its exceptional length. It may be clear how each artist provided the project with their own sense of creativity, but this is largely a result of how compartmentalised all of their contributions to these compositions seem to be, with there being little concordance between the collaborating musicians for the most part. Rather disappointingly, for an album so exciting and extensive in its ambition, Planetarium is seldom followed through with the airtight cohesion that would be needed to execute an endeavour as expansive as an experimental exploration of astronomy.
Going into Planetarium, with the project essentially being an operatic epic about the Solar System, it was probable, and perhaps even a prerequisite, that most of these pieces, and the album as a whole, would not follow anything resembling a traditional structure, even in spite of the numerous points in which relatively orthodox pop and rock principles are touched upon. As was to be expected, this is indeed the case, but past the point of being compellingly far-out in a way that aptly reflects the subject matter and instead being somewhat dishevelled and downright sloppy at times. This most definitely applies to Stevens’ lyrical explorations of the topic at hand, but in a much more loose and opaque way than the compositional and structural flow of the record’s music, which seems rather ill-conceived or simply nonsensical at numerous points throughout the tracklisting. With each of these 17 songs being dedicated exclusively to one of the Solar System’s eight planets, as well as other astronomical objects like the Sun, the Moon, Pluto and Halley’s Comet, what’s undoubtedly most striking about the tracklisting before even pressing play is the fact that the planets are completely out of order, with there seemingly being no thematic reasoning behind the way in which these compositions are sequenced. Although the reference to Genesis in the title of the 15th track, In the Beginning, seems somewhat out of place, its positioning before Earth is perhaps the only example of an order of tracks that makes conceptual sense, and its Christian imagery isn’t all that surprising, given the central role that Christianity typically plays in Stevens’ style of lyrical romanticism.
With there being no real thematic rhyme or reason to the arrangement of the tracklisting for the most part — at least not one that is readily apparent — it would be natural to presume that Planetarium is structured in such a way as to serve the progression of these pieces as musical compositions, regardless of their conceptual significance to the broader themes of the record. In fact, this certainly seemed to be the case at first, given just how fitting of an opener Neptune is, with the expressive phrasing and slightly atmospheric hue to Stevens’ soft, piano-based balladry establishing the overall tone of the album in a manner reminiscent of the way in which Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois acted as a gripping opener for his seminal 2005 release, Illinois. The singer-songwriter’s graceful, swooping vocal melodies, and the rich swells and dips in the orchestration that accompany them, allude to the symphonic crescendos and diminuendos that, if employed efficiently, could dramatically capture the infinite beauty and awe-inspiring magnitude of the cosmos across Planetarium. Indeed, the artists do seem to attempt to apply some climactic instrumental expansions and reductions throughout the tracklisting, but the execution and the mixing leads to an example of just how disconnected each of the musician’s stylings can seem from that of their collaborators. A prime example of this applies to Stevens, whose usual intimate singing and fragile falsetto, which typically acts as the crux of the appeal of his branch of lo-fi indie folk, is all too often drowned out during the peaks in the instrumentation or simply doesn’t ride the waves of tense, orchestral swells particularly well, as is the case at numerous points across the 15-minute-long Earth. It’s for this reason that the frequent use of vocoder and auto-tune on the folkster’s vocals across Planetarium comes across as an attempt to mask this fact, by synthesizing Stevens’ vocals in such a way as to come across as sci-fi-inspired, which is perhaps confirmed by the opening line of Mars (“In the future, there will be no war”), delivered through one of the most jarring uses of distorted vocoder across the entire album. Although the fact that this effect is most commonly employed amidst seas of synthesizers and other electronic instrumentation suggests that this decision was intended to reflect the spacey, futuristic feeling of certain cuts, the extent to which it sometimes clashes with the synths, coming together almost like a grating wall of noise at points, makes it seem as if the vocoder is more of a crutch to compensate for the frailty of Stevens’ vocals. Moreover, in the case of a song such as Saturn, the singer comes through with some strikingly elegant vocal melodies that perhaps would have been best left unaltered atop the shimmering blips of electronics. Or, at least this may have been the case were the backend of the piece not overpowered by McAlister’s thumping techno bass drum.
Many of these problems do, however, point to the broader, aforementioned issue relating to the way in which the four musicians utilise dynamics throughout Planetarium. Not only are there obvious points in which rises and falls in the instrumentation would have potently reinforced Stevens’ scientific and mythological symbolism, but there are also instances in which there will be a building of tension in a piece that heavily alludes to a spike in symphonic suspense that ultimately never materialises. Of course, with Planetarium seemingly being structured in a deliberately obtuse fashion, it can be difficult to gauge whether or not such misleading tone shifts were intentional, but even if this is the case, they certainly don’t seem to work to the benefit of the record’s progression. Mars arguably makes for the most blatant misstep in this regard. For a song about the Roman god of war, it would surely be fair to expect a particularly powerful, intense and dramatic climax at some point during the piece, and the second verse seemed to be the perfect place for such a peak in suspense. With Mars stating his authority as the god of war in the first verse, and warning the listener that perpetuating violence means sacrificing any hope of a prosperous future for life on Earth, and with the abrupt, punctuated stabs of orchestration prior to the second verse, as the meandering string and trombone sections seem to be building up the semblance of vigour and strength, it would seem that the second verse, during which Mars details a future of nothing but war, devastation and sin, would be a prime time for the instrumentation to reach its forceful heights. Yet, the orchestration simply resorts back to supporting Stevens’ singing just as it did during the first verse, which is not solely an underwhelming misdirection from the listener’s perspective, but simply doesn’t seem to benefit the song’s arc by reiterating the same musical motifs during two sections that are distinctly disparate in tone. Thankfully, the subdued, yet oddly triumphant, timbre of the final verse serves as a striking reflection of Mars’ exaltation of love, peace and forgiveness, as the cascades of coruscating synths, shimmering glitches and heroic, military-style electronic percussion propel the piece towards its hopeful resolution.
Although Mars is one of the messier songs from Planetarium when it comes to connecting the musical motifs to the thematic framework of Stevens’ storytelling across the song, the ending nevertheless demonstrates that the four-piece certainly had some successful ideas when it comes to bringing to life Muhly’s bold concept for a musical project. Indeed, at the best of times, the artistic vision of Planetarium comes to life rather vividly, such as on the triumphant trombone swells on Uranus, which are interspersed between vibrant electronic blips and swirling guitar lines from Dessner that highlight the fragility and wistfulness of Stevens’ vocals in an incredibly endearing fashion, in a similar manner to certain moments from The Age of Adz and Carrie & Lowell. Likewise, Dessner’s subtle but dramatic guitar lines on Pluto are also interwoven amidst glitchy taps of electronics that frame an exceptionally elegant and tranquil performance from Stevens, which also flaunts one of his most enticing vocal melodies across the entire album. Of the handful of instrumental pieces across Planetarium, most of which are unfortunately rather underwritten and often obscure the already spotty fluidity of the record, there are nonetheless some rather potent moments. This is particularly the case on Dark Energy, wherein the composition’s cold, looming ambience starkly parallels the chilling mystery of the unknown form of energy that likely permeates space in its entirety and is expanding the universe, potentially to the point of being torn apart in the Big Rip. It’s during the best moments over the course of Planetarium wherein there really is a palpable excitement surrounding Muhly et al.’s artistic ambitions for the project, even if this adventurous undertaking unfortunately doesn’t yield its desired results for the most part.
I’ve often found that projects such as Planetarium are so daring and monolithic on paper that it’s easy to approach such endeavours with an inclination to seek out merit in them. However, it’s the execution that makes or breaks these sorts of monumental musical ventures and, unfortunately, Planetarium simply lacks the fluency, the focus or the cohesion between its collaborators to fully actualise its admittedly amazing concept. Whilst there are points in which the leitmotifs and the conceptual arc of the album come together in such a way as to allude to Muhly and his team having a tangible objective that they are aiming to achieve, such examples are far less pronounced than the surrounding instances wherein the four musicians struggle to convey these themes with a cogent degree of consistency and urgency. Ultimately, although there are a selection of sound ideas that come close to crystallising Muhly’s astronomical aspirations across Planetarium, such examples of awe and wonderment are far less plentiful here than they are amongst the cosmos.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10