Album Review: Planetarium by James McAlister, Bryce Dessner, Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly

In Planetarium, the human condition is set against the backdrop of mythology and outer space.

Shimmering, expansive music combines with abstract, mythology-inspired lyrics to elevate the human experience to something more profound.

Created by songwriter and musician Sufjan Stevens, composer Nico Muhly, composer and guitarist Bryce Dessner of The National, and percussionist James McAlister, Planetarium is an ambitious project.

Strings, horns, electronic instruments, and a full band create a sound that is suitably grand for an album dedicated to space. Classically-inspired strings merge with the glimmer of synthesized, experimental lines, while electronic beeps and blips blend with the hum of ambient sound.

Just like the universe, the tracks are vast and constantly expanding, an effect that is strengthened through ambient drones and extended, slowly building chords.

The combination of the traditional with the experimental, the acoustic with the electronic, and the ambient with the melodic, creates a powerful, atmospheric sound. Instrumental tracks like “Halley’s Comet” and “Kuiper Belt” are scattered throughout the album and effectively set the music as floating through space.

Lyrically, the tracks are abstract explorations of the celestial bodies in the solar system and their namesakes in Roman mythology. The lyrics range from delicately poignant to broadly overarching, but never shy away from the gruesome nature of mythology. “Saturn” is the god’s confession to devouring his own children, while “Mars” suggests the god of war is everywhere and that war will only end when nothing is left.

Despite the grandiose quality of the mythology, the album is rooted in humanity. “Venus”, one of the album’s strongest tracks, is a reflection on youthful love and lust, while “Earth” is an exploration of humanity’s desperate efforts to preserve itself, despite its propensity for self-destruction.

Planetarium Live in Brooklyn, NY // PC: Spin & Matthew Eisner

“Mars” stands out as a particularly aggressive track, the loud, heavy horns and dramatic, swelling strings creating a backdrop to war. Stevens’ typically soft voice is passed through a vocoder, producing a harsh, dystopian sound. The end of the track features a surprising shift, however, as the music becomes softer and the lyrics turn toward love and peace. The song suggests an apocalyptic outcome of war might not be inevitable after all, if only we did something to prevent it.

Another standout track is “Pluto”, a meditation on isolation and loneliness. It is directed toward both Hades, left in the underworld without Persephone, and the dwarf planet itself, so far from the sun and not substantial enough to be a planet.

A glistening, movement-filled guitar part calls to mind the shimmer of a tenuous atmosphere. Horns burst through the swelling strings, their sorrowful sound blending easily with the fragile lyricism.

The closing track, “Mercury” is easily my favorite on the album. Delicate and introspective, it is filled with a gentle yearning for something unobtainable. It describes something mercurial and fleeting, whether love or happiness or something else entirely.

Stevens’ vocals are at their softest and most mesmerizing, colored by a soft reverb, while slow piano chords rest beneath an undulating guitar accompaniment. This intimate track dedicated to the solar system’s smallest planet is the perfect way to end the album, pulling its immensity back to the closeness of the personal.

By placing personal moments and mythology within a broad, musical backdrop, Planetarium emphasizes the human condition within the vastness of the universe. The album portrays human nature as a curious mixture of destruction and benevolence, and identifies it, for better or for worse, as the one thing that unites us in the infinite reach of space.

You can listen to Planetarium below on Spotify.

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