Planetarium by Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlisterRelease date: June 9, 2017
There is a rarely used term in the genre lists of music libraries – unclassifiable – and it is one that seems to point to a lazy listener, to someone who cannot discern the nuances of an album and slip it in next to dream pop, heavy electronica or thrash punk.
Planetarium, though, is genuinely unclassifiable, unless a new category of ‘Björk and Vangelis gift their wildest thoughts about the Solar System to the leftfield of American alternative rock and ask a composer to take charge of the offspring’ has been instigated without my knowledge.
Born out of Nico Muhly’s commission to create a new work for a Dutch concert hall and his subsequent collaboration with Sufjan Stevens, his drummer James McAlister and The National’s Bryce Dessner, it is a suite of invention and unbridled creativity that sweeps across the cosmos in a confident yet often unfathomable way.
Vocoders clash with strings, beats fight with trombones, the proverbial kitchen sink is thrown at every track and the results are, if not always successful, certainly engaging, but shorn of its concert hall setting, where it premiered in 2012, it does not always make sense.
‘Jupiter”s breakdown bombast and ‘Black Energy”s soundscaping meander, for example, struggle to stand up to repeated plays, but when the four minds involved truly meet, they bring a power and beauty that is undeniable.
The stand out moments comes when things are slightly more under control, as in the sparse thuds and delicate twinkles of ‘Moon’, the pounding, thrilling conclusion of ‘Saturn’ or ‘Mercury”s genuinely spine-tingling and sparkling mesmeric charms.
As a concept piece for a concert hall, Planetarium stands up to inspection, but as a standalone album, it simply has too much going on to be truly coherent. A little less overindulgence, a little more musical restraint, and it could have been mind blowing, instead of simply mind bending.