Review Summary: Vast, overwhelming, awash with wonder… And the universe is pretty big too.
The origins of this record are well documented: beginning life as a Nico Muhly-commissioned piece for the Muziekgebouw, a concert hall in Eindhoven, The Netherlands – Muhly was then essentially given carte blanche to present and perform Planetarium
as he then wished – choosing to bring along influences and contemporaries Sufjan Stevens, James McAlister and Bryce Dessner. Over the course of a UK tour, they constantly tweaked, built upon and manipulated the various different movements, bringing an almost experimental feel to the concept. Fittingly on the much-awaited studio version, then, Planetarium
is, at its centre, a Muhly score first and foremost, blossoming with lush soundscapes and blissful ambience, the orchestral flourishes always threatening to dominate but persistently holding back at the last second, allowing the softening synthetics and jarring effects to take centre stage, neither presenting itself as neo-classical nor electronica for long enough at any one time to be pigeonholed. McAlister’s percussion is used sparingly but to gorgeous effect, glitchy minimalist beats that almost present themselves as a set of whirring cogs and gears, flexible and versatile enough to power a range of different emotions. Dessner’s subtle but near ever-present guitar work adds a constantly satisfying companion to passages of ambience that could otherwise grow uninviting, as if to provide a necessary human element to the alien, whereas Stevens himself brings a shimmering smooth croon over the top of proceedings, and whether at the most distorted, robotic passages or the bare-bones purity of an untouched vocal track, his presence is a constant source of comfort. Considering the various different bit-parts that comprise the record, the sheer number of stylistic shifts, the different pairs of hands at work, and the size of the record as a whole, it is bafflingly cohesive. The numerous sections of flowing ambience may not be to everyone’s tastes, however in the scope of the album, they are very welcome amongst the more dense and explosive moments (which are assuredly not in short supply).
Throughout the runtime, Planetarium
toes a line of almost tongue-in-cheek theatrics, but while it never dials back on the drama, every element is played with the highest conviction, not least of all on album highlight (looking at objectively structured songs
here, it becomes very difficult and almost unnecessary to separate the parts of the sum on such a project) ‘Saturn’ – an auto-tuned pop effort in two halves: a brooding atmospheric vibe in the first movement, before building into a more distorted mash of Daft Punk and Innerpartysystem in the second, almost crassly bringing together any pop cliché that sticks but succeeding through the strength of how deadly serious it is in execution.
This is not an organic collaboration, nor is it even thematically consistent – it often flits carelessly between claustrophobic introspection and vast, sprawling wonder at a world unknown, as if to always remind the listener to consider their own place in the universe as if it were the most burgeoningly important thought of all, whilst on the other hand taking time to acknowledge the mysterious expanse of that which we will never truly understand, perhaps to suggest that ultimately we are all bonded by insignificance. This is not a bleak record by any stretch, but in the mass of beauty that the bulk of the record creates we cannot help but face the stark reality (through passages like ‘Sun’ and ‘Black Hole’) that our species’ inherent ego may well impede knowledge and discovery – not to mention the distinct irony in ‘Earth’ being the longest and most sprawling track. Geocentricism 101, even if it is closer ‘Mercury’ that signs off with the most brazen sense of self. The key concept for this record isn’t always obvious, which can leave some a little detached and alienated. In itself that seems like a suicidal step for a concept record to take, but for this reviewer, the individual snippets of story with no real beginning, middle or end are the perfect representation of the gigantic palette that makes up human existence.
Do not approach with anything less than full attention. Planetarium
is not to be used as a distraction from the day-to-day. No, it requires more engagement. But rather than demand attention, it gently extends its hand, waits for the listener to take hold, and carries one onto a wave before the gravitational pull of each planet tugs and engulfs the ear in a hazy wash of beauty and splendour.
If losing oneself in space is this blissful, sign me up for the next shuttle and release me.