Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister – Planetarium
This project began in 2011 when Nico Muhly was commissioned to write a song cycle by the Muziekgebouw Eindhoven. Originally toured in 2012, it’s taken a further two-and-a-half Martian solar orbits for it to finally find a terrestrial release. The mission is a tough one. Any concept album about the solar system has to navigate between Holst, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and a Yes album from the mid-1970s. Inevitably, the temptation with an idea of this sort is to accentuate the ethereal and eliminate the material. But here the trajectory has been calculated to perfection. That’s in no small part due to Sufjan Stevens. In any context, his fragile, quavery voice instinctively communicates a sense of space. Here, it’s also liberally auto-tuned, giving it an extra-dimensional quality too. But it’s the combination of the voice and the lyrical content that really resonates. The words act as a resolutely earthly counterpoint to the infinitesimally large musical themes. “The youngest of children/ A cannibal addiction/ Innocent victim, bite mark, body part/ When in secret siege, we eat them.” If that’s Life on Mars, then the leafy suburbs of Western Europe will do just fine, thank you very much. For sure, there’s a certain disjointedness that echoes the recent outing by Bon Iver, but there are also tracks that would grace a genuine Sufjan Stevens album, notably ‘Mercury’, ‘Venus’, and ‘Neptune’. The result is like nothing on Earth. So, let yourself go. Take a trip to the Planetarium. And enjoy.