Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister explore the voyage to the great attractor with their thought-provoking album Planetarium, A seventeen track collaborative project of intergalactic candor that even PBS Space Time should consider as their musical backdrop. The album touches on areas from Greek mythology and astronomy to human consciousness channeling Carl Sagan’s 1977 book, Dragons of Eden. What else could we expect other than a philosophical dance party questioning the Human experience when Sufjan Stevens is involved? Sometimes choppy, sometimes swooning, Steven’s angelic vocals are heard flowing along the orchestra of instruments, but it isn’t always clear what his intentions are. Nonsensical lyrics become as complicated as astrophysics and leaves the listener spiraling down into a black holed acid trip.
The sequence of songs, named after the orbiting giants in our milky way, begin and end into one another as a lucid exposition into space itself. They give us the track “Jupiter”, a pulsating anthem dedicated to the Biological Father, the Holy Father and, applause, the largest planet of the Solar System, Jupiter. 4 minutes in and we’re met with a monotone robotic voice “Father of light/ Father of death/ Give us your wisdom/ Give us your breath”, a nod to Mr. Stephen Hawking perhaps? One could argue the part might have been sung better if Hawking performed a cameo solo. Our acid trip leaves its happy place and we’re smoking Dimethyltryptamine into EDM hell, an ode to Age of Adz, before Jupiter completes its rotation.
“Uranus” brings us back into a mindless nebula where we can, once again, be eternally grateful that these four formed a super group. To appreciate the honest complexity of Planetarium the album needs ample uninterrupted play time and that is where the sounds of “Uranus” are flaunted. The instrumentation floats us into a night sky and gives us room to breathe before the electronic shocks proceed reminiscent of The Music of The Cosmos cassette tape that I scored at Value Land for 50 cents. This quartet’s sky rocket hovers near the compositional masterpieces of Vangelis, but misses by a few light years. Sometimes a synthesizer should be buried along with your leisure suit- Want a ’70’s flashback? No thanks.
Mercury is the finale in the track list. Arguably the simplest with airy piano, quirky guitar licks and Sufjan’s soprano this song rounds out the compilation with the most daunting question of all: where is God in all this madness? “All that I’ve known to be of life/ and I am gentle/ You ran off with it all/ and I am faithful” are snippets into that dedicated child of the church, complacent in the belief of a sole creator. With age, we look toward the heavens that suspend above and laugh at our eager curiosity. We want answers to explain the evidence against biblical texts. “And all that I dream/ Where do you run/ Where do you run to/ And I am faithless” begs Stevens in a desperate attempt to hold onto all the prayers he’s made possibly in vain. Where does religion run off to when the symphony of science rolls in and displaces what the preacher man says?
Now, could you take a trip to Dark Sky Park and use Planetarium as a Smithsonian handbook to the Stars and Planets? Not likely, but the album could be used as a field guide into the minds of Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister as they propel our fragile human brains into a sleepy, frightening, and fascinating journey that Plato himself would have put on repeat.