A project that began as a commissioned work by the Muziekgebouw Eindhoven for composer Nico Muhly, Planetarium premiered in 2012 but was transformed by the arrival of this collaborative recording five years later. With Muhly, singer/lyricist Sufjan Stevens, the National guitarist Bryce Dessner, and drummer James McAlister receiving equal credit for the music, it also features a string quartet, seven trombonists, a keyboardist, and numerous instrument credits, including synths and programming, by the co-composers. Inspired by the Solar System, Planetarium's 17 tracks are named after celestial objects and related phenomena, with Stevens' often enigmatic lyrics focusing on the subjects of science and Greek and Roman mythology. (Falling after touring for his album Carrie and Lowell, Stevens has said it was a relief to work on something that wasn't personal.) "Hurricane heart/Hurricane haste/Wandering star/Put in its place" describes the planet "Jupiter." Like much of Planetarium, the song has a melancholy tone reinforced by humming, occasionally glitchy electronics. Its steady rhythm drops out halfway through, and filtered vocals proclaim: "Sermon of death says Jupiter is the loneliest planet." Distorted drums, mechanical noise, and eventually trombones warp the track into something more epic and ominous. Each piece is a musical mini-drama, to varying degrees and at widely fluctuating lengths, with the glistening wash of "Halley's Comet" lasting about 30 seconds, and "Earth" getting the most attention at around 15 minutes. Keyboard instruments ranging from piano, organ, and celeste to Mellotron, Moog, and other synths blend with strings, Dessner's lithe guitar, and Stevens' airy vocal timbre for a thematically atmospheric, unearthly effect across pieces that also contain passages of explosive percussiveness and symphonic grandeur (all of the above can be found on "Mars"). "Saturn" even develops into a pulsing club-type entry ("Tell me I'm evil/A Capricorn creature/A chemical addiction, first incision"). It's a sprawling effort with an over-70-minute running time, but also a haunting one, recommended for musically adventurous stargazers of all types.
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AllMusic Review by Marcy Donelson