Stevens / Dessner / Muhly / McAlister
Planetarium


4.5
superb

Review

by MercuryToHell CONTRIBUTOR (42 Reviews)
June 13th, 2017 | 110 replies


Release Date: 2017 | Tracklist

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.



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Comments:Add a Comment 
MercuryToHell
Contributing Reviewer
June 13th 2017


1294 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Can't quite say enough about how much this album really did blow me away - even if it looks set to massively divide opinion, not to mention how unfamiliar I am with anyone involved in this project.



Also, as a semi-aside, it may not mean much to many people but I'd also like to apologise to Sputnik and the regular users for my absence from writing recently, I've had a... not tiny amount of things going on, not all positive, and I haven't been able to hold the targets I set for myself as a writer, let alone the expectations of me as a contributor, I know a lot of great writers missed out in this hiring cycle, and I am still incredibly grateful for my opportunity. Must do better.



But anyway, enough of that, here's my first one in ages, apologies if I sound like a pseudo-intellectual douchebag!

JWT155
June 13th 2017


14063 Comments


Loved this on my first listen, excellent review.

Asdfp277
June 13th 2017


18330 Comments


i only know muhly from here but i like his music so i'll check this when i can, it sounds cool :]

TalonsOfFire
Staff Reviewer
June 13th 2017


17571 Comments

Album Rating: 4.1 | Sound Off

This is a fantastic review Mercury and glad to see you back, mind pos. I think the staffers, certainly me, also appreciate you covering this because at least a few of us loved this, but each of us have been unable to find time to review it.

I remember when Saturn first came out and I was unsure of how I felt, and it was so much better in the context of the album. Mercury is probably my favorite on here, but needs more listens since it's such a dense and diverse album.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised at how amazing this is when it involves one of the main members of The National and Sufjan Stevens, along with classical composers, come together to make something as sprawling and adventurous as this. Definitely one of the best records of the year.

Digging: Rolo Tomassi - Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It

clavier
Contributing Reviewer
June 13th 2017


629 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5 | Sound Off

Awesome review - the spirit of the record was so well captured.

Digging: Night Verses - From the Gallery of Sleep

ashcrash9
June 13th 2017


2957 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5 | Sound Off

was wondering when someone was gonna cover this, nice review



this is slowly but surely growing on me with each listen

MercuryToHell
Contributing Reviewer
June 13th 2017


1294 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Honestly I was reluctant to give this a go, was expecting a staff review for it almost instantly, not to mention I was a bit worried I wouldn't be able to quite place into words how it makes me feel, but it really is an outstanding record, and I'm glad to return here with my two cents.

Toondude10
June 13th 2017


12863 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Easily one of the best albums of the year.

Digging: Monuments - The Amanuensis

DoofusWainwright
June 13th 2017


20000 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5 | Sound Off

Hated this first listen. Clicked a bit second listen...don't know where my rating will settle.

Digging: The The - Infected

Divaman
June 13th 2017


2435 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Glad to read this. I listened to this in passing while I was downloading it from CD to iPod, and thought what I heard was a little boring. Now I know it's something I need to listen to with full focus. Thanks for the tip, Mercury.

Digging: Loreena McKennitt - Lost Souls

theBoneyKing
June 13th 2017


14910 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Listened to this a couple times now. It's a lot to take in so I'm still not sure how I feel about it overall but when it's great it's pretty damn great.

Digging: Deafheaven - Sunbather

Lucid
June 13th 2017


9793 Comments


biggest issue here is that there's a limited amount of ideas stretched thin to 70+ minutes. i'd give it about a 3.5. best song is in the reviewer's username

theBoneyKing
June 15th 2017


14910 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Mercury is transcendent agreed.



Earth is also amazing.

Toondude10
June 15th 2017


12863 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

yeah Earth is fan-tucking-fastic

wwf
June 15th 2017


6004 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

Ill be honest, I love Sufjan but this album sounds like itll be not good from what Ive heard



Cool that you all dig it tho

Toondude10
June 15th 2017


12863 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Sufjan is honestly the weakest part of this album imo

ashcrash9
June 15th 2017


2957 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5 | Sound Off

tbh I agree with Fantano's assessment of this in that every member brings something solid to the table but the organization of the record is messy as hell and brings those efforts down a peg



I like it in spite of that more than he does, but he kinda hit the nail on the head with this one for me

StreetlightRock
Emeritus
June 15th 2017


3906 Comments


Man I really need to listen to this. I saw this live when they were touring it and it was fucking awesome. If they really do capture what they played here, I'm sure it's great.

Digging: Let's Eat Grandma - I'm All Ears

AsleepInTheBack
June 15th 2017


5804 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

found this pretty disjointed and homogenous and meh unfortunately. very listenable though

tommygun
June 16th 2017


26837 Comments


sounds like dece background music + dessner is a wizard, will acquire



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