In many ways, the Olympian gods were to their devotees what the solar system is to us — distant, eternal, and inscrutable on the one hand, yet familiar enough to be addressed by name, and silent enough to allow us to project on them what we will. That the Romans named the planets after their deities was no accident. Since outer space and classical mythology both represent otherwise vast and inscrutable fields that can only be made comprehensible through inquiry and imagination, any project set in either field can be a project about anything, or indeed everything.
Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner of The National, and composer Nico Muhly have opted for the latter in their sprawling collaboration Planetarium (★★★★★), an album that has been a long time coming. Originally commissioned as a live show and performed in the UK and the Netherlands in 2012, a side-by-side comparison makes clear that the album is an entirely different experience from the far more orchestral live show. Presenting the songs as an album allows Stevens, Dessner and Muhly to scale both up and down, building intense, room-filling electronica into some tracks and bringing others down to a drawn-out, autotuned whisper.
The four do impressive justice to their subject matter, taking us on a tour of all eight planets plus the sun, the moon, and Pluto. It’s never entirely clear whether they are exploring outer space through the lens of classical myth, or the other way around — and in a way, this ambiguity is the point. On Planetarium, mythological truths are layered upon scientific ones, and the distinction between deity and planet is frequently blurred. Songs ostensibly about the planets are bound up with the stories and personalities of their Greco-Roman namesakes.
In bringing the mythological together with the astronomical, Planetarium explores the tension between personal and universal. “Saturn,” one of two singles released in advance of the album, furtively explores the madness that led the paranoid titan to consume his children, while “Mars” takes on the capacity for destruction and aggression that, like the god of war himself, “reside in every creature.” “Venus,” with its stately, imposing, and almost dream-like beauty, plays with a lighter variation on the theme. The goddess of love and desire is invoked on a personal level, as Stevens quietly recalls a sexual awakening — “Methodist summer camp/You show me yours, show you mine.” It’s hard to get more straightforward than that, particularly in a song that rhymes the word “callipygian” — which, according to Stevens, means “nice buttocks.”
If “Venus” seems a little on the nose, the album brings a more abstract approach elsewhere, as on “Pluto.” A planet for less than a century, before being reclassified as a dwarf planet, Planetarium takes pity on the distant, icy world, giving Pluto its own song. It happens to be one of the album’s most majestic and haunting, preserving some of the orchestral bombast of the live version. Though thought of as a lonely and remote place, Pluto and its moon Charon are tidally locked with each other and orbit a point between them. The romance is not lost on Stevens, and in his hands Pluto’s differences, the reasons for both its astronomical demotion and self-imposed exile to the underworld become a thing to be celebrated. “Let’s leave evidence to rest,” Stevens sings, as if to dismiss any hand-wringing over whether it should be included among the “proper” planets.
Planetarium reaches outside the Greek mythos as well, with several electro-ambient interludes named for miscellaneous cosmic phenomena, as if to make the point that for all our exploration, the Kuiper Belt, dark energy and black holes in many ways remain as mysterious to us as the planets themselves were to the classical world. We are also brought into familiar territory with songs about the sun and moon. The album truly comes to a head on “Earth,” a fifteen minute epic in five movements that recalls The Age of Adz, Stevens’s previous foray into off-kilter electronic soundscapes. It is a loving tribute that touches on our home planet’s vastness to us, smallness in the wider universe, and everything in between.
After a stunning tour of our solar system, closing track “Mercury” almost surprises. Although both the planet and the messenger god are almost afterthoughts in their respective pantheons, they are stable, familiar and ever-present figures. Over a gentle piano, Stevens uses the often-forgotten god of tricksters and crossroads as a vehicle for exploring jilted love. Despite his apparent abandonment, he does not sing with the voice of someone scorned, but someone in awe, mourning their relationship but also marvelling at the strangeness of it all. After all, as any mortal from a Greek myth would tell you, loving and being loved by a god is no easy thing.
Stevens’s gently sung meditations on the eight Olympians touch on love and desire, awe and intimacy, and ultimately the narrowness and briefness of human experience. While the smallness of humanity in the wider universe is a well-worn trope, in an age of looming planetary catastrophe it never hurts to be humbled before the wonder and terror of the cosmos.
Planetarium is available now from Amazon.com and iTunes, as well as on streaming services.
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