Finally, The Soundtrack To Space No One Knew They Needed
Space is a vast place that fascinates us with a myriad of unanswered questions. Sufjan Stevens, the National’s Bryce Desser, composer Nico Muhly and James McAlister decided to showcase their rendition of extraterrestrial sounds and questions in a subjective way. The idea festered for years until the task was completed: build a song cycle for a string quartet and seven trombones that pays homage to the only habitable universe on file. 17 tracks reminiscent of the startling ambience of space hold together the album, Planetarium. With titles ripped straight from the Milky Way Galaxy, four well-established musicians successfully completed the soundtrack of the universe. Every space movie in existence has needed this album. Each artist was able to effectively leave a mark in a way that their colleagues could not.
“Neptune,” the first track, sounds vacant, with only an echoing piano assisting Stevens’s vocals. The feeling of spacey emptiness and deep existential thoughts linger throughout the entire 75 minutes of the album. Stevens’s poignant diction is what draws the listener in — from this point, the album is like a torrential rain, heavy, but consistent in tone. The lyrics are quixotic, morose and bold. The second song, “Jupiter,” takes a quick turn to mythic culture, holding steadfast to experimental electronica that sounds like The Postal Service never broke up. It is truly one of the standout tracks on the album. For seven minutes, Stevens croons along to the audio meant to represent one of the largest planets in the solar system. There are moments where the emotion behind the music is clear to see and other moments where it becomes noticeably distorted. Another important note is that all of these planets are not inhabited by humans, a fact that makes each track otherworldly. The loneliness and the question of what’s really out there is prevalent as one song morphs into the next.
Other songs worth mentioning are “Saturn,” “Venus” and “Mars,” all tracks that are drastically unique when compared to their counterparts. “Saturn” is laced with some heavy autotune, but it seems like a rather tame song until about two minutes in, which is when an EDM-sounding beat begins to thrash through laptop speakers. “Venus” starts off with lyrics speaking of heartbreak and Stevens loses most of the autotune. His vocal range is both eerily haunting and exquisite, pleasing to the ears. “Mars” sounds like a Pink Floyd song laced with a touch of robotics — and an introduction fit for 2001: A Space Odyssey. It takes almost four minutes but Stevens does throw his vocals in there, though they are subdued and soft. “Mercury,” the last track, goes back to the beginning musically by surrendering the auto tune, the electronics and the robotic pieces to standalone piano. The most extensive track, “Earth,” sounds like the history of the world and exploration stuck into 15 minutes of vacuity.
Each track has a different story and an even more intriguing sound. Numbers like “Halley’s Comet” and “Kuiper’s Belt” are nothing but abstract, dragged out, ambience. “Black Energy” is five minutes of atmospheric emptiness. “Black Hole” is 34 seconds of anticipated, sharp, white noise. The songs all seem to ask the simple question of the meaning of life. Usually what would be considered filler songs, these interludes are the perfect transitions to intertwine with the album. Stevens is the reason each track has a voice, McAlister is the reason the album pieced itself together with the beats. With Muhly and Desser involved as well, each musician personally played an important part in the collaboration of the album. There are instances of autotune, there are instances of chaotic, brash guitars, then there are periodic ballads; each track is all over the place. It feels dramatic, depressing and scary, but the fact that the album can do all of that is amazing in itself. Planetarium would make a good album to study or sleep to. It is a work that touches base on everything from folk rock to adult progressive rock to the threshold of electronic experimental.