ALBUM REVIEW: Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium



In 2005, when I was all of 15 years old, Sufjan Stevens’ angelic voice drew me into Illinoise’s whispery bedroom ballads about serial killers and cancer-claimed lovers and its swelling orchestral epics about Chicago and UFO sightings. The otherworldly sonics and emotional depths of the music on Illinoise! were matched by the lyrics, which I scribbled all over the covers of my high school notebooks and white canvas Chuck Taylors. When my obsession with Illinoise waned, I moved onto his earlier albums, namely Michigan. Friends told me that he was set on the endearing, but ludicrously ambitious goal of writing an album for all 50 states. Listening to his music while walking around the tired landscapes of home, through the cookie-cutter housing developments bifurcating endless cornfields, my imagination surged with the myriad possible narratives Sufjan might find in the rest of the union.

I waited five years for the next state, hearing whispers that he’d run into the New Jersey Devil on a visit when he was writing a song about the Pine Barrens. The rumors never materialized into the next state album. Instead, he released an album of prismatic electronica called The Age of Adz and took it on the road, dancing like a robot amidst a shower of strobe lights, wearing a flat rim hat, angel wings, tinseled pom poms, and a tank top. His face, though, retained its characteristic placid calm. With his next release, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens shed The Age Of Adz’s densely layered arrangements and obtuse lyrical abstraction for an acoustic folk album likened to Nick Drake and Elliot Smith, in which he shared stories of growing up with a mother with schizophrenia and substance abuse issues.

In another about face, Sufjan’s new release Planetarium synthesizes his predilection for classical and electronic music, while also satisfying his penchant for concept albums. It is the product of a collaboration with heavy hitters from the classical music community, namely Bryce Dessner of The National and Nico Muhly, who’s worked with Bjork, Philip Glass, and Grizzly Bear, to name a few. Sufjan’s longtime drummer, James McAlister was also credited in the collaboration. Initially, the group came together to write a song cycle commissioned by a Dutch concert hall. In a feverish period of creation, Sufjan took the role of captain in crafting the expansive soundscapes into songs, glued together by McAlister’s percussion and sequencing. Following a unique timeline, the songs on Planetarium were written for a series of commissioned live performances before ever being recorded in a studio. The songs took on new forms and arrangements when converting from live versions to recorded versions. Years after the tracks were recorded, Sufjan and the guys figured, okay, “Let’s open Pandora’s box.”

Inside said box is an expansive, electronic concept album in which Sufjan’s voice traverses the spectrum from angelic purity to auto-tuned robot data over textured, atmospheric synthesizers, a string quartet, and a troop of trombones. The results are invariably hypnotic. The album is paced with the mastery of trained classical musicians who understand the value of silence as an instrument. Dessner and Muhly’s experience as movie score composers is apparent in the cinematic apogees of the album’s most cathartic moments. Planetarium feels like a Sufjan album that had the freedom to follow bold whims anchored by the validation of expert classical musicians, giving Sufjan a chance to explore the expanses of the universe from the comfort and convenience of his friendly, neighborhood planetarium. — DILLON ALEXANDER