Review: Sufjan Stevens, et al – Planetarium



Gustav Holst, in his Planets suite, perfectly captured a sense of grand power and majesty which reflected the scale of an entire solar system in his composition. On Planetarium, the result of a collaboration between singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister. This is the modern-day equivalent of Holst’s opus, trading the bombast of a full orchestra for a more electro-ambient production. Some might argue that this option is a budget-friendly way of creating the atmosphere of the planets, as most ambient music is ethereal by nature, and skimps on the raw musical talent of orchestral instrumentation.

Sufjan Stevens performing at the 2015 Newport Folk Festival.

However, Planetarium isn’t simply standard fare; there are some new ideas under the surface here, from the glitched elements on the song “Jupiter” to represent the chaos of its never-ending storm in its famous ‘red spot’ to the plucking, bouncy electronic beats to give the impression of something on a celestial scale gradually taking shape. however, some ideas don’t work out for the best. “This was such an epic endeavour because the universe is constantly expanding.” says Sufjan Stevens. On Planetarium, he delivers his usual soft and delicate performance, weaving his vocals in and out of the brass instrumentation throughout the album, but on some tracks his voice is electronically distorted for no discernible reason, which almost seems like sacrilege given the fact that his singing is so pure that no alterations need to be made to it in the first place. It doesn’t ruin the album, but there’s enough of this distortion to grate on me.

With this small issue of personal taste aside, there is a lot of enjoyment to be found in Planetarium. It offers a fresh, modern sound for a concept that has been done to death, and reinforces the supernatural tendency for anything that Stevens touches to turn to gold.

Favourite track: Jupiter

Least favourite track: Saturn


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