To say that Planetarium has been divisive would be an understatement. This album has been an absolute hit with fans but been very mixed with critics. Here’s the conundrum, they are both right, Planetarium doesn’t know whether it’s a competent cohesive collection of spaced themed songs, or if it’s a way for Sufjan Stevens to sloppily bring together Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and James McAlister a group of talented musicians to support Sufjan’s own ambitions.
This album has highs, and when it hits those highs it’s completely mesmerizing Sufjan’s voice shines and his signature songwriting is on display full effect, as a Sufjan album it delivers, not to the impeccable quality that an album like ill noise, Carrie and Lowell or even Age of Adz but its classic Sufjan-like you know and love. Then there are lows, and boy there are quite a lot of them here, unfortunately, it’s an album that took so many listens to form an opinion because it’s bloated, from first listen I was fully mesmerised, it was possible this could have been an album of the year contender but in retrospect, it is easy to sense some disappointment. As a whole and instrumentally its great, its grandiose, but there are some sound mixing issues here and there (Venus was a low point) then there is a long stretch of album where Sufjan was just absent as a whole, which would be cool and all because the album shouldn’t be just a showcase of Sufjan’s talent but of the rest of the crew but these lengthy tracks just aren’t interesting, they are lifeless and void of any personality, boring if you would.
It is ambitious, but it seems like the crew have bitten off way more than they can chew and it is clear to see this wasn’t initially made to be an album, and while withstanding I am yet to see the live performances of these songs, I can take away that would be a much greater experience. Don’t get it twisted, songs like Mercury and Saturn hit soaring highs, mercury is an absolutely gorgeous introspective masterpiece with grandiose ambition, among the greatest cuts in Sufjan’s long discography, the symphonic call backs it makes to older Sufjan material namely the opener death with dignity to his heart-wrenching opus Carrie and Lowell fitting as a nice dichotomy that death with dignity was the opening of that painful time of Sufjan life whereas Mercury (which was a song written before Sufjan went through that turmoil) is reimagined as a testament to pain and a way to close the door on there. These thoughtful moments are few and far between though which is a shame because we have some of the best Sufjan has to offer but also some of the worst.
This isn’t a stain on Sufjan’s discography because this isn’t a bad album, it is, however, a prime example of how hype can kill an album, there was a lot running on this release and it simply just couldn’t live up to the precedent that was set. At times it’s bland and at times it’s grand, it is one of the most inconsistent albums I’ve heard when it comes to quality, there truly are some stunning moments, but at the same time some of the dullest moments I’ve heard from such a hyped up project, with a running time of nearly 80 minutes this is an overblown concept album that never really delivers on the wow factor of our solar system, it painful to say this but Planetarium while having it’s moments just isn’t a very memorable release.