Space. The final frontier.
For ages, the sky above has captured the imaginations of creators everywhere. In a summer marked by a long-anticipated solar eclipse, space was at the forefront of a nation’s mind, even if just for a day. Musicians James McAllister and Sufjan Stevens were no different, but they were thinking about space for a little while longer.
In June of 2017, Stevens, McAllister and fellow musicians Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner released an immersive, provocative album titled Planetarium. A work that began with Muhly in 2011, it includes a track for every major planet and cosmic entity in our known solar system, which brings to mind previous musical works like Gustav Holst’s The Planets, an orchestral masterpiece premiered in 1918.
Planetarium technically fits the prog-rock genre, but it incorporates an array of musical techniques and styles. Dessner, one of the collaborators, is a film score composer, and the album feels like the soundtrack to a four-dimensional space film. Many of the tracks are largely devoted to the building of immense yet simple musical landscapes, tracing craters with pitches and sustaining long tones to paint the starlit sky. No song really includes a chorus, but rather lines of narrative that sometimes stick to a repeating melody. If that sounds like opera, it kind of is.
The words are reminiscent of human emotion and experience. For example, “Venus” talks of young love and lust at a Methodist summer camp. Unsurprisingly, “Mars” talks of war. Civilization has attributed these themes and traditions to these planets, named for the Roman deities of love and war. However, “Black Energy” is simply dark and ominous, with layers of synth pulling the listener into the mystery. “Moon” is quirky and employs weird electronic sound effects. “Jupiter,” like its Holst brother of the same name, is impressive, using a choir of seven trombones emphasizing the main melody, and a rock beat, with shimmering synths and eerie, rambling vocals that seem to come out of a radio set, like on an intergalactic mission.
It’s easy to listen to Planetarium while studying, simply appreciating McAllister’s hypnotic beats of Stevens’ unique vocals. It’s even easier to come back to the album when the listener finds themself humming the chilling lines of “Earth,” and wanting to go back for another listen. Planetarium is impressive the first time, and gets deeper with every repeat. Like the solar system we know, there are layers and layers to be observed, explored, and pondered. It’s heart-wrenching, it’s unnerving, it’s joyful and it’s great music. Just like space.