Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister - Planetarium review

Avant-supergroup reach for the stars with Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister

Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister - Planetarium album artwork

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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

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.