The origins of this unique collaboration can be traced back to 2011, when Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven asked US classical composer Nico Muhly to create a piece of music based on the Solar System.
Roping in The National’s guitarist Bryce Dessner, singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and the latter’s longtime drummer James McAlister, the quartet first performed it together in Amsterdam the following year. They reshaped the material in the studio soon after, but it was only in 2016 that they returned to Planetarium for a final buff-up. Good things come to those who wait. Stevens’ feathery vocals are the album’s fixed core, around which his astrological and metaphysical enquiries are given grandiose scope. The suitably imposing Jupiter is typical: hushed vocals and tinkling synths flaring into electronic avant-noise before subsiding into a symphonic progscape warmed by brass and strings. At other times, ambient passages drift like time-lapse studies of the cosmos. Most impressive of all is the 15-minute space odyssey that is Earth, a musical journey into paranoia and contradiction that feels like an extended eco prayer