Apparently, it only took albums about Michigan, Oregon, Illinois and personal introspection for Sufjan Stevens to get bored of this blue orb we live on. Planetarium, massive in scale, ambition and sound has Stevens, The National’s Bryce Dessner, composer Nico Muhly and percussionist James McAlister traversing our solar system. This is not Gustav Holst’s The Planets, though there are beautiful horn sections a plenty. Instead, it’s a deeply eclectic collection of music, bouncing from Top 40 pop, piano ballads, dubstep freak outs and terrifying ambient interludes.

It’s truly a strange experience upon first listen, especially coming from Stevens’ last record. Carrie & Lowell was his most intimate album yet, with only a small cast of characters rotating in and out of his dirges. Planetarium has greater aims, Stevens’ propelling his lyrics into the cosmos and mythology. Indeed, this is where the Holst comparison could come in; the men behind Planetarium meld human views on the twinkling things in the sky, ancient legends and personal stories to create characters for each stop on this solar tour. But, lyrically, this is always where Stevens pulls of magic tricks. There’s a reason that “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” began with the story of the Ferris wheel’s invention and ended with Stevens crying in the fetal position. There are few song-writers in this galaxy who are better than Stevens at making the macro micro, telling tall tales that evolve into deeply personal revelations.

Stevens uses the memories of dead Gods and balls of gas as a canvas rather than steadfast inspiration. The shuddering “Venus” starts with Stevens remembering sensual moments at a summer camp, rather than directly evoking the form of Aphrodite. If Stevens is the guide for Planetarium, he’s never a very direct one, instead filling out flowing details of sense rather than any instant images. And for an album supposed to take on the visages of Gods, Stevens uses “I” and “my” a whole lot.

The music is even stranger when compared with the (very loose) source material. Sure, plenty of it sounds spacy, with old synthesizers humming and glowing. But the only direct comparison is probably with Stevens’ own The Age of Adz, but supplemented with the considerable talents of his fellow space cadets. The standouts, for the most part, are the actual heavenly bodies. Many of the interludes (“Black Hole,” “Halley’s Comet”) feel as though they’re missing a visual element to them. They have a strange ping-ponging across the recording, but they only fill space. Meanwhile (and thankfully), the larger pieces stand as some of the finest work that anyone in the quartet has made. Opener “Neptune” is a swooning, grand thing, with Muhly and Dessner’s string and horn arrangements giving levity to Stevens’ croon as he introduces us to the hallucinatory tour. Following “Jupiter” is a three-part suite crammed into seven minutes. The starting boom-clap drum line opens into a beautiful and low gravity vocal performance. The whole thing goes haywire at the half-way mark, with the drums collapsing into chaos and Stevens screaming through auto-tune that “Jupiter is the loneliest planet,” before horns swoop in for the rescue. Appropriately, it’s the other gas giant that matches “Jupiter” for sonic size. “Saturn,” with a few minor tweaks, could be a chart topper, thanks to massive drums, sing-along choruses and a driving synth line.

But, funnily enough, it’s the three smallest bodies in our planetary neighborhood that captivate the most. “Moon” is the spacy-ist song of the bunch, with Stevens giving a hypnotizing mewl, weaving through images of bursting light, hopping rabbits and a sinister crane. He’s joined by sample-ready flutes and twitching horns. It’s all very surreal and brings to mind some of Air’s more unhinged work. The next track “Pluto” is an appropriately small but tender ode to the planet-not-planet that signals the near end of our domain. This is the one time that Holst’s ghost seems to appear, with a bridge filled to the brim with romantic strings and horns. Closer “Mercury,” in a graceful way, flies quickly around Stevens’ piano line. His voices echoes here and there, working on his most introspective lyrics on his journey from the edges of the solar system and back. Even for Stevens’ great catalogue, “Pluto” and “Mercury” seem destined to land in the upper echelons.

Stevens, in a recent interview, called Planetarium a very man-made thing, but he’s underselling the project. At its best, it does bring in the wonder of seeing the Milky Way open up in the night sky. And if Stevens and friends are still bored after this, maybe we can see a Super Sufjan Galaxy in the near future.

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