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Sufjan Stevens’ Big, Messy Universe

Brady O’Callahan Jul 20

The fate of Earth seems to hang in the balance these days. Misery and mystery surround us, not to mention climate change. So, as we have for millennia, we look to the stars. Ancient civilizations had their sculptors and architects. Greeks and Romans had poets and orators. Early Christians had their prophets. Today, we have Sufjan Stevens.

Released this spring, Planetarium began when Nico Muhly was asked to create a new piece for the Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven. The album is a song cycle that explores the far reaches of space and the heavenly bodies that inhabit it, but it also purports to explore the inner universe of human consciousness. Muhly immediately thought to reach out to friends Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner to assist.

Sufjan is no stranger to collaboration, especially in the world of “high” art. He has partnered with the New York City Ballet, particularly with the young master choreographer Justin Peck, to produce scores for a number of pieces in the past few years. This partnership began with Sufjan’s own Enjoy Your Rabbit and moved quickly to composing brand new scores for new original dances. The collaboration is a winning one, and each component elevates the other.

For Planetarium, they’ve assembled a veritable Marvel’s Avengers level team of indie darlings. Muhly is an accomplished contemporary composer, most notable for his masterful minimalism. Dessner is a member of critically acclaimed indie rock group The National with experience in film scoring. James McAlister is a longtime Sufjan collaborator, providing percussion for Sufjan’s work for the past decade. Sufjan Stevens is, well, Sufjan Stevens — one of the most revered voices in the indie music world.

The album begins with the sparse and pure “Neptune”. Sufjan’s angelic vocals float above calm and steady piano keys, light horns and gentle strings. The lyrics invoke a blurry but intriguing combination of deities. The end result is mesmerizing, a puzzle to unpack. “Jupiter” pushes the feeling forward, injecting a dash of energy into the mix in a track that verges on industrial. “Halley’s Comet” rounds out the introduction with a growing, bright drone that seems to be setting the stage for something great, big and beautiful.

What follows though is a grab bag of lucid moments and wandering confusion.

Sufjan’s vocals are normally so pristine that presented here barely-absent affect feels like we’re cheated. The lyrics add to the confusion. Sufjan himself told NPR, “I mean lyrically it’s a word salad. Half the time I had no idea what I was saying. It was just like I was just grabbing.” It’s meant to be interpreted, but after a few listens, the vagueness comes across more like a lack of bold choices.

The album has its charming moments, however. Ambient interludes, like “Tides” and “Black Hole”, are triumphant. In a sense, the shortest compositions stand out the most because they have focus and concentrate the band’s experimental tendencies in a limited time frame. “Mercury” is among the loveliest songs Sufjan’s ever recorded. Sufjan’s voice unadorned aside from an echo, which is a welcome respite from the crunchy, processed vocals on most of the album.

This group of collaborators have made careers out of crafting intimate moments. The decision to explore a concept as large as the universe leaves listeners lost. How do you create intimacy when you’re starting from infinity?

Like the universe, the project seems vast. Like floating in space, it’s riveting but then becomes dull. The album, as with our solar system, is sprinkled with moments of greatness and beauty surrounded by nothing of note. At its best, it sounds like Stars of the Lid. At its worst, it sounds like Imogen Heap’s misguided music box. According to a press release accompanying the album, the thesis of the project is “to be human is to be a total mess.”

This album is a bit of a mess too.

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Photo (top): Sufjan Stevens. Credit: Renee Barrera.