Thursday, June 8, 2017

Sufjan Stevens - Planetarium Review

When it was announced that Indie darling Sufjan Stevens would be making a collaboration album with Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister about our solar system's celestial bodies and their connection to the Roman Gods that they were named after I can't say I was all that surprised. This was, after all, the same man known for making two state-centric concept albums, a two-hour Christmas record, a 25-minute Electropop epic, a project entitled Sisyphus with a Art Pop producer and Abstract emcee, and a minimalist Singer/Songwriter ode to his parents. There's no trajectory in Sufjan Stevens' post-Illinois career that makes sense. And yet, no matter how lighthearted or grim, Stevens has poured his all into the music he makes. Planetarium, which initially seemed to be nothing more than a gimmick, has proven to be yet another sidestep in this confounding discography. Returning to the Art Pop roots of 2010's Age Of Adz, Stevens meticulously blends his love of religion, space, and history into a lengthy project that feels as endless as the stars themselves. Some ill-suited structural decisions, a collection of backlog redundancies, and a tendency for Dessner, Muhly, and McAlister to feel unessential put a slight damper on what's otherwise an engaging, creative, and ambitious album.

Let's start with this last statement because if I don't the sheer attention I'll be giving to Stevens would feel fallacious. This isn't to discredit the work of the three men here, but given the prominence of Stevens and his seemingly endless musical talents, their value seems unnecessary. Despite always using background performers for his work, Stevens still has a proficient grasp of well over a dozen instruments. Combining those two results in bombastic works like Illinois or Age Of Adz, proving before Planetarium that Stevens is easily capable of creating genre-bending, maximalist creations without needing to be directly associated with collaborators. Throughout Planetarium's 76-minutes, countless comparisons can be made to Stevens' past work; namely Age Of Adz. Striking orchestral arrangements ('Venus'), minimal ones as well ('In The Beginning'), bastardized autotune-turned instrument ('Mars'), synthetic walls of sound ('Jupiter'), and dainty bleeps and bloops ('Moon') all find their way into Planetarium's star-bound aesthetic. That's not to say Dessner, Muhly, and McAlister's contributions aren't helpful to furthering the concept, just that Stevens himself has done it before, and done it alone. If there's one positive, it's that here the audacious Art Pop, the battle between organic and synthetic, makes sense given the interstellar foundation.

This lack of instrumental ingenuity shifts the focus back to Stevens, who always provides a unique perspective with his lyrics. That's no different here, as the planetary roundtable of Roman gods forces Stevens to attack his typified songwriting techniques from new, strange angles. Interwoven between geographical factoids, whether it be Jupiter's red dot or Mercury's light gravitational pull, are tales spun by the gods and what they hold dear. 'Neptune' uses the ruler of the seas as a means to confront fleetingness and fluidity. 'Venus' uses the ruler of love to provide the same unconditionally. And 'Mercury' uses the ruler of trickery, who's also a messenger, to expose a former significant other who "ran off with it all." So, while Stevens' subject matter hasn't altered much, the means by which he attains that inspiration has changed drastically. At times, Planetarium is also engaging if you choose to intercept Stevens as a historian storyteller, as there's a litany of references to past deities, collapsed civilizations, and mythological fantasies. These expansive themes provide quite the contrast to Stevens' last material, 2015's Carrie & Lowell, which focused intensely on the warmth, compassion, and frailty of a single couple.

In some sense, Planetarium provides a nice mix between Carrie & Lowell's austere beauty and Age Of Adz's explosive manifest. Whereas the latter was gritty, disorderly, and unpredictable, the former wallowed in sincerity, benevolence, and certainty. These two unite on Planetarium. For every discordant uproar like on 'Jupiter' or 'Saturn,' there's a roaming hum of peace and serenity like on 'Black Energy' or 'Sun.' They act similarly to how we perceive space, sometimes violent and unforgiving, other times hushed and impenetrably ominous. Unfortunately for the record, the organization of such parts leaves a lot to be desired. From 'Black Energy' to the first four-minutes of the 15-minute 'Earth,' a ten-song stretch, Stevens appears less frequently than the instrumental relapses. Six of these ten songs are entirely instrumental and rarely wow as when paired with the songwriter who pressures them into excellence. There's 10-minutes in particular, with 'Black Energy,' 'Sun,' and 'Tides,' that stagnates the record's pace, with about as much excitement as our very own asteroid belt that provides a rocky, uninteresting gap between Mars and Jupiter. Much of the instrumental pieces are tedious and feel like little more than fodder for when Stevens' brain and associating disarray needs to take a break.

No moment strays from the shtick the four artists attempt here, staying uniform and deliberate in their spastic, shape-shifting Art Pop, and while a fair amount fade into the empty space some tangible opposition provides a much-needed spark for when the dryness emerges. Early album standout 'Jupiter' energizes Planetarium both in concept and style, bouncing off the walls with multiple elaborate sections and some well-oiled autotune, something that stumbles later on with 'Mars' or lead single 'Saturn.' The seven-minute beast also personalizes the mammoth planet, as we find Stevens in celebratory refrain, somewhere he always flourishes, hollering that "Jupiter is the loneliest planet." As far as the refrains go, the lengthy 'Earth' features one that bears resemblance to Stevens' defining piece 'Impossible Soul.' It's not as well-crafted, or as memorable, but 'Earth' transforms from a boiling orchestra of Eno-esque Ambient to a ravenous dance party as if it's recounting the entirety of our rock's existence. Lastly there's Planetarium's closer 'Mercury,' which quickly brings the existential ideas down to a personal level. The haunting, piano-led tearjerker shows that no matter how inconsequential our lives may be in the grand scheme of things they're still important to us. If that was Stevens' goal with Planetarium, to humanize the unknown, he succeeded.


  1. My general problem with Sufjan is that his intrumental arrangements are pretty inconsistent in quality for me.
    Occasionally he can create something beautiful or exciting but most of the time the music just glosses over me without making an impression

    1. I can see that being the case. I pretty much agree, there's a lot that kinda fades into the background.

      Not coincidentally, all my favorite Sufjan tracks are those where the production excels. 'Vito's Ordination Song,' 'Impossible Soul,' 'The Man Of Metropolis,' etc