This is a potentially fascinating collaboration between these four lauded composers based around the ideas of space...not just outer space but your own inner space. A song suite that explores the planets and our solar system taking in piano ballads, proggy crescendos and everything in between. Oh and in case you are wondering Sufjan does sing.
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A couple of light years ago, in my fabled adult teen years, I actually saw Sufjan, Bryce and Nico debut their Planetarium project to a crowded room most likely expecting some symphonic derivations of “Chicago”. A concerted effort to marry Sufjan’s twee anthems, Bryce’s home-away-from-home compositional tryouts and Nico’s celeste playing, it came together as pretty much one of the most delicate things I’ve ever heard, full of strings, fanfare and general cosmic prettiness. As an album, with collaborator James McAlister on board, it's much the same: a sweet and pretty record that doubles up with Sufjan's signature overblown claptrap.
At times, you can really pinpoint where this record came in Sufjan’s trajectory -- the trio make a busy, proggy work with plenty of oddball beatwork, compacting huge ideas into tight spaces a la the existential hole-digging of ‘The Age of Adz’. The theme, proved through musical history to be quite heavy handed, is handled in a myriad ways here, but does well to straddle the trio’s juxtaposition of goofiness and high-minded ascendence. “Jupiter” is pure, unbridled electro-pop with the auto-tune to suit, while “Venus” uses staples of that sound around epic brass builds and marching resound. The record rarely settles on one way of doing things, but from this clutter it can create huge, spacious nonsense worth hearing: “Mars” straddles squelchy electronic noise, tender guitar work and burning horns as if they’ve always been orchestral music’s traditional combination.
The experiments come and go, with each artist making one hell of a racket for what kinda sounds like their own enjoyment -- they rarely sound fully together in this one, but more minimal tracks -- like the droning kosmische storm of “Sun” -- prove what they could do together if they shed a bit of their stylistic approach. I’m kind of left forgetting that any of it happened -- like my time in space was one big vacuous crescendo -- but while it’s on, I can only be bowled over
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- Planetarium by Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister
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