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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Sufjan Stevens (and others): Planetarium

SUFJAN STEVENS: PLANETARIUM (2017) (w. Bryce Dessner et al.)

1) Neptune; 2) Jupiter; 3) Halley's Comet; 4) Venus; 5) Uranus; 6) Mars; 7) Black Energy; 8) Sun; 9) Tides; 10) Moon; 11) Pluto; 12) Kuiper Belt; 13) Black Hole; 14) Saturn; 15) In The Beginning; 16) Earth; 17) Mercury.

General verdict: This is NOT going down in history as the definitive musical guide to the planets; any old textbook on astronomy is about ten times as exciting.

As early as 2012, Stevens took part in a collaborative project with contemporary classical com­poser Nico Muhly and with Bruce Dessner, guitarist of The National, commissioned by a Dutch concert hall — a conceptual piece about no less than the entire Solar System. After an actual live performance in Amsterdam, the piece lay dormant for five more years before the principal parti­cipants decided to reconvene and (with the final addition of drummer James McAlister) finalize the art piece in a recording studio. The result is Planetarium, an album credited to all four guys at once — but since Sufjan's name comes first on the cover, and also since he sings all the vocals, I am assuming that it belongs in his discography anyway, regardless of the actual percentage of his own melodic themes. And it is hardly likely I will ever tackle Nico Muhly on his own, any­way, although it turns out that I have briefly run into him on occasion — in particular, he had collaborated with the late Antony Hegarty (now known as Anohni) on three of his (as-of-then) records. Besides, the album was deemed important enough to be released on the 4AD label — the unspoken king of all things Cosmic and Transcendental — and that should spell quality.

The concept of the record basically just involves writing an ode to each of the planets (Pluto generously included), as well as the Sun, the Moon, and a few accompanying phenomena for the sake of diversity. In itself, it is simple and elegant and respectable and it has been a whole century anyway since Holst's The Planets, so it is odd that nobody thought of the idea earlier. Lyrically, though, Sufjan barely even touches planetary subjects — mostly, he uses the celestial bodies as starting reference points for all sorts of personal ruminations (for instance, ʽNeptuneʼ refers to "strange waters" and "drowning" and that's about it; ʽMercuryʼ mentions "running off with it all", meaning that Greek mythology matters much, much more to this man than little globes of cosmic dust pointlessly revolving around some silly hot star). But musically, the arrangements are ambitious enough so that you could think of the compositions in... astronomical terms, so to speak. Or, should we say, astrological?

There is but one problem with Planetarium, or, rather, all of its small problems boil down to one big problem. An album like this — a large, 76-minute long musical canvas presuming to connect matters celestial and terrestrial, transcendental and personal — should do one of two things: it should dazzle, or it should not exist, period. Saying «yeah, I've heard this monster of an album that covers the entire Solar System, and it's kinda ok» just feels stupid. You might dislike Holst's Planets and consider them a poor man's crass and pompous attempt to outdo the magnificence of Gustav Mahler — but in the event that you like Planets, you will probably want to close your eyes and get transported away into space at some moment. This is the precise thing that an album like Plane­tarium needs to do to you, too. But does it?

Honestly speaking, apart from Sufjan's voice and lyrics, the music reminds me more of the afore­mentioned Anthony Hegarty. There are plenty of watery, echoey, glib-shaped, keyboard-based ballads here, from ʽNeptuneʼ to ʽMercuryʼ, that are about one hundred percent atmosphere and ultimately depend on whether the singer manages to convert you or not. And then there are the «loud» numbers like ʽJupiterʼ, electronic workouts with heavy use of sampling, Artistic Auto­tune, and overdub-till-you-drop vocal harmonies and keyboard loops. Both approaches eventually combine on ʽEarthʼ (geocentrism in action!), a 15-minute piece that begins as a New Age cascade of smooth-'n'-stately musical winds, then turns into a heavily autotuned prayer, and finally becomes an alien dance number. Not a single one of these parts, not for a single moment, ever feels particularly profound or engaging. If this is the best these guys can come up with to prove the value of ʽEarthʼ to our potentially hostile neighbours in space, expect to be obliterated upon arrival. At best, this track is boring; at worst (particularly when those uglified vocals come in), it is excru­ciating.

I mean, it is not often that a 76-minute long album passes by in such a way that I cannot latch on to a single second of it — heck, I even enjoyed parts of Ayreon's epic enterprises, because they were, well, epic. Corny as hell, sure, but enjoyable the same way as one enjoys one's Star Trek or Clifford Simak. This album demands to be taken much more seriously, but how can you take seriously an album with a ton of autotuned Sufjan Stevens vocals? I can barely take him serious­ly when he's clean! And when you are given clean vocals, other problems surface. ʽPlutoʼ, for instance, slowly builds upwards from a quiet, bubbly, kaleidoscopic texture to a loud orchestral waltz, awash in strings and brass, but the sound is so compressed and flattened that the strings have absolutely no volume / depth to them, and the whole thing feels fake and artificial. I under­stand that they are simply following current trends in production, while at the same time probably thinking of how innovative this whole approach is, but these are ugly trends, and this approach ain't innovative in the slightest.

Since I have no intention of wasting my brains on trying to explain why each of these tracks sucks on an individual basis, I will end this with a slightly warped conclusion: Planetarium is like The Age Of Adz, but with more strings, more Autotune, and more pretense — each of these three points not working in its favor. Oh, yes, and a couple of the songs, such as the stripped down, arpeggio-favoring ʽMercuryʼ, could have fit right in on Carrie & Lowell, too, but for me this is not a plus, as you already know. But if you are a Stevens fan, by all means take note, because, despite the collaborative nature, Planetarium does feel very much like a bona fide Sufjan Stevens album. I mean, I even have no idea what exactly is Bruce Dessner's contribution to the record supposed to be — and I don't even think I want to know.

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