Sufjan Stevens has never been an artist lacking in ambition or concept albums. He’s had albums for the states of Illinois and Michigan, Songs for Christmas, and even a symphony for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Now he has a collaborative album with songs inspired by the solar system, Planetarium, with The National (QRO spotlight on) guitarist Bryce Dessner, drummer James McAlister, and classical music composer Nico Muhly. Is it all too much and an artistic indulgence? Yes. But there are sweet moments in the heavens.
First things first, at over seventy-five minutes and seventeen tracks, there is clearly too much on Planetarium. It’s not just eight planets, or those eight plus the likes of the Sun, the Moon, and Pluto – there’s everything from “Black Energy” to “Hailey’s Comet”, though a few, like “Hailey’s”, are sub-minute instrumental fly-bys. The album is an ambient as one would expect from the source material, light technical effects and distance.
Pieces like opener “Neptune” are haunting sorrow for the most distant of (official) planets, while “Pluto” is a strings-led orchestral epic that still manages to be soft. Meanwhile, closer “Mercury” might be the record’s finest piece, angelic, intimate loss. But there is also the all-over-the-place “Jupiter”, over-synthed out-of-the-eighties “Mars”, and fifteen-plus minute sound exploration of our very own “Earth”.
Interestingly, Planetarium does best on the lesser planets than the more famous ones, perhaps as those see ambition of the indie-auteurs restrained from over-ambitious. While the reach may exceed the grasp, Planetarium is definitely an interesting experiment.