It is Daly City, California. It is late. It is pitch black except where it isn’t. Beyond the smoky, hushed awning of translucent gray night-clouds, there is a semblance of life; tiny fractures of light, a black field flowered sparsely with stars, enough to see Polaris, the Dippers, and maybe even Venus—the rest taken by the hungry, civilized Earth. So light pollutes. The soft glow of my neighboring San Francisco reaches out to me like shores to the sand, stealing my attention from the cosmic array I know to be above. Or behind. Or is it below? As the city lights pull us into its darkness, I realize the cosmic mutability of my own perspective: the black canvas may be speaking to me from overhead, hanging lights from the heavens and encouraging ladders, but it also may not. Is it not just as true, and just as daunting, to think of space as simply that—a hole—something I’m not peering up at but rather down into, my life only just held to the Earth by a mere gravitational tug, teased relentlessly by the becoming prospect of falling up, out, and down, down, down, into the blackness of cold space? The harsh glow of my neighboring sister city softens, and I see her now for the good big sister that she is. We don’t always get along, she and I, but a single glance upwards—or downwards—helps to remind me I’d rather be here than there.
Like the overarching black spread and my variable perspective, Planetarium—the orchestral-scoped, synthesized lovechild of musicians Bryce Dessner, James McAlister, Nico Muhly, and Sufjan Stevens—pokes and prods, shifts and shakes, holds close and lets dangle its listeners over a cosmic precipice as it attempts to answer the proverbial question our universe has notoriously inspired: what does it mean to live rightly? How does one live responsibly, righteously, fully while faithfully—and are these notions even possible? Guided by poignant lyrics interested in cosmic exploration as it pertains to body exploration, the music of Planetarium acts as a sort of spiritual voyager, an auditory space vessel inviting its listeners to take part in a venture through the vast reaches of the solar system—its aims extending outward as much as inward. In our current times—the rising tides of global climate change, an American-tailored provocation housed in the shell of an old demagogue, the increasing terror attacks spilling across Europe: a tension towards the future—such an invitation appears an eager kindness to those of us unsure of where next to tread.
The universe, as far as we can conceive, is vast, vast, vast, and dead. We might suppose there is very little it has to offer in terms of practical guidance and moral constitution. But the cultural capital of the planets themselves—their allusions to Greco-Roman mythology—serve as more than character shout-outs from classic stories; they remind and reflect as manifestations of our own socio-cultural anxieties, our very human hang-ups. Planetarium takes this premise and runs. In “Neptune,” the album opens with a plea to the gods for preemptive forgiveness, forgiveness for, as Sufjan sings, “feeling it out for myself.” A necessary endeavor, the song assures, if we wish to have any true attachment to life or engagement with it. The song is beautiful, reverent, and fashionably defiant. If the record is asking, how does one properly live, “Neptune” answers: trial and error. Its lyrics evoke pain and loss, revolve around closeness and farness—be it with oneself or with the gods. And so the classical story goes of man’s utter resistance to doing what he’s told, and isn’t it so perfectly sad and tragically understandable? The song keeps itself grounded, heading its vocals with a somber piano, aching strings, and looming, trembling brass. The only hint of something otherworldly comes from Sufjan’s voice itself, lightly processed with that clean, spacey vocoder which here remains quietly hidden until he, too, seems to ache and tremble on words like “own” and “heart.” Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, and Neptune, the ice giant, seem like the perfectly-paired opening for the album’s existential appeal—a song where questions rise over one’s head like violent breaches of frigid waters against the hull of the mind. Water may be the gateway to life, but, like life, it is a force of violence not to be governed. “Neptune” respectfully acknowledges this, and submits itself, as well as the rest of the record, to whatever cruel ends these cosmic pursuits might meet. Not likely pleasant, we’re warned, but true, and in that way, just.
Mythology and fantasy tell only half the story on Planetarium. The record insists upon its own scientific fidelity, and in accounting for the universe’s astronomical forces, it allows for the music to function as a meditation on physics, a metaphor for the tangible dynamic between space objects as analogous to our own relationships. In this context, Jupiter serves more as a muse than a god simply by being so fucking big. A potential star, a failed star, now a lumbering gas giant who serves as a gravitational gate keeper, keeping Earth mostly safe from an array of space junk, Jupiter’s physical presence can be interpreted poetically, psychologically, as a paternal figure, a source of inspiration for the album’s looming questions of living correctly. So the song “Jupiter” passes through the planet’s gates in the hopes of obtaining its wisdom and gleaning, perhaps, a little bit of its power. The song honors its subject as it intimidates its audience, daunting us with booming thuds (the footsteps of a frustrated dad or the thunder of an angry god?) and paling its own voice in the presence of the great big thing, singing with a “fevering pitch” of rising, wobbling, and screeching tones which plea for Jupiter to bestow its humble singer with good and wise graces. And what do we learn? Being a dad is tough. Nobody ever seems to account for how lonely it gets keeping the world safe from disaster, except maybe Robert Hayden, when, in his poem “Those Winter Sundays,” he asks:
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
While Jupiter may be “the loneliest planet” for Planetarium, the rest of us are more content to scrutinize the occasional time it loses its cool. Yet, on the journey we all take through growth and maturity, our first stop is our parents. And at its heart, “Jupiter” is about parental perseverance, provision, and shelter, and these concepts’ necessary preoccupations with death. It is a thankless job, but it brings with it the privileges of mighty power and a fierce self-esteem.
So the rest of the album plays out as the solar system is explored, or as a human life might be lived. “Venus” pulses with blossoming sexuality, with warming radiators and jump-starting jeeps, obfuscating what might be a story about summer camp love—an intimate encounter with pulled off running shoes, a well-shaped ass, and “go[ing] slow” under a sleeping bag—by shrouding its intimate narrative in Greek and Roman allusions. “Pandemos, fill of me!” Damn. Is that what the kids are calling it these days?
But while “Venus” is all about pubescent stumbling, “Uranus,” a reference to the Greek god castrated for abuse against his wife and their children, leaps beyond the realm of innocence and into a place of accountability and consequence. The song meditates on the rage of the warrior, vengeance born from incest, the chaos of unnatural, wild things. “Uranus” might be troubled with misandry, too, referencing, more than once, the castrating knife with a plea for its cut: “Render the knife,” Sufjan sings, “Cut off my kind.” But is this kind men, or the result of some human abuse, a violent appendage of abstraction, necessitating symbolic castration? The song ends with an unnatural scream, a blazing mechanical roar resembling a spacecraft we might imagine trying, again and again, to break out of the planet’s atmosphere. But it falters.
“Mars,” then, takes such consequences head on with a lyrical approach akin to sitting down for an interview with the god of war himself—though you might want the scoop on his private life, all the guy wants to talk about are regurgitated prophecies of horror and disposable futures. Structurally, “Mars” transcends a single perspective, very literally embodying the concept of conflict by splitting the song into two dramatically different halves, one preaching our devastation, the other a softer melody reflecting on love and the gorgeous lengths we go to honor it. Mars is the closest inhabitable planet to our own, making it an abundant metaphor for the future—for direction, hope, and possibility. Yet there is no life on Mars, making its symbolic capital a little funny. Ah, we say, but there could be. But Planetarium argues this has less to do with whether or not we can get the funding, and everything to do with whether or not we can stop killing each other. If we can’t, our destination as a species might be closer to the lifeless Martian landscape than we think.
What can be made of such polarity? Planetarium grows quieter after “Mars,” leaving us hanging in a fury of buzzing, sharp synths—“Black Energy”—and letting the black emptiness of space be our next guide. This is not the only instance of spacey ambience. “Halley’s Comet,” placed between “Jupiter” and “Venus,” is our first taste of pure, ambient sounds brimming the record. On a theatrical level, tracks like these serve to establish the vast atmosphere Planetarium inhabits. They playfully characterize their subjects (the real Halley’s Comet, for example, is known for making brief appearances, and its song honors that presence by lasting a mere thirty seconds). But aside from cosmetics, these soundscapes help link relationships between the big ideas each planet represents. If “Mars” posits a profound existential conflict, “Black Energy,” “Sun,” and “Tides” aim to take us through the resulting psychological hoops. Perhaps such a jarring conflict leads the traveler astray, to become lost and jaded, and the ensuing experience is unpleasant, sinister, and lifeless. A pass over the “Sun” comes then as a much needed respite, providing us with life and even character, though voice is still absent. It isn’t until after the resonant “Tides,” after almost ten and a half minutes of thoughtful space soundscape, that we are pulled back to shore by these tides, into the guiding light of the moon.
Where do we go after tasting the insufferable abyss? “Moon,” a relatively simple track, offers us sanctuary. Its lyrics present two fables of generosity and sacrifice, of light and blood. Lyrically, the song suggests our greatest resolve against war and moral strenuousness may come from the virtues these myths outline—offering ourselves up for food, for the greater good of those in need. Sonically, “Moon” has not yet gotten over our previous experience almost drowning in the freezing throngs of space; the track is filled with twitchy clicks, tatters, and bleeps, as if it is still shaking from the cold waters it narrowly escaped.
“Pluto” comes to us next as a private conversation between the dwarf planet and its moon, Charon. Astrophysics and poetry meet closest at their corners here, as the two celestial objects conspire together to take from each other any authority as independent gravitational forces, forever twirling in a cold slow-dance of codependency, a metaphor for our own feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness. Jupiter is evoked at the very opening of the track, establishing a contrast between the father and son dynamic and this brother and sister one. Songs like “Jupiter” and “Moon” suggest the height of one’s strength comes from their ability to give themselves up for another (whether it be a rabbit jumping into a fire or a gas giant deflecting comets). Conversely, “Pluto” presents us with the opposite condition: two forces that take from each other, depleting any individual strength while paradoxically asking the other how to be independent: “Won’t you tell me how to deal with my own?” It is a beautiful song concerned with masters and monsters. At about a minute and a half in, the song crescendos with brilliant, sorrowful space strings that sound like what I imagine to be robots openly weeping, or severed arms bleeding gold.
But all of that beauty is punctured by the parading, icy space junk of “Kuiper Belt,” another ambient track that bumps around with more energy and recklessness than its predecessors, cluing us in to the album’s approaching climax. Soon enough it settles down, drawn with the rest of Planetarium into “Black Hole,” which bubbles with a growing, furious energy, building us up for impending disaster.
And just like that, we are thrown into the rings of “Saturn”, spinning us around like saw blades cutting into our innocence! “Tell me I’m evil,” Sufjan sings, Saturn sings, Cronus sings, once the heroic castrator of Uranus and now a monstrous cannibal of his own offspring. The song’s strength comes from its fast pace and lyrical self-absorption. It screams an imperative, throws us around some, then bombards us with house beats. As another stop on the cosmic venture into maturity and existential worth, “Saturn” is the truthful and necessary admittance of our own culpabilities, our complicit violence in this world. With regards to its message, the song thankfully doesn’t draw itself out, though it certainly packs a punch, spinning love into a nauseating throwaway line for some cheer squad of the damned: “Love…love…love…love…blah…blah…blah…”
As a lead-in to the penultimate song, “In the Beginning” is the only ambient track which doesn’t really sound like space, and I believe that’s intentional. The title is an overt biblical reference to the beginning of all creation, and the track’s sound remains faithfully abstract, solitary, arriving almost like a waking light for the world to come.
“Earth” is the longest song on Planetarium, and we might assume—due to its length, subject matter, and penultimate placement in the album listing—that this song would serve as a sort of cathartic crescendo for our existential exploration into the cosmos, into the self, into what it means to live rightly. Well, it is and it isn’t. “Earth” erupts in little ways, opening playfully with the hums and drums we might associate with prehistoric jelly, an amoebic playground of expansion and contraction. From there it continues with a heartfelt and eventually booming choral reflective on humanity’s self-conception and preoccupation with painful engagements. “…Paranoia and prediction, exploration, competition,” Sufjan moans, dignifying the point by spending extended time on each word, drawing out their effects and meaning. From there, “Earth” eventually dissolves into the oddest of mantras—“run, mission, run, before we arrive”—now belaboring the point with tired, blurry horns and broken synths, all of which eventually collapse in their disarray, performed as a profound anticlimax to what may have been expected. We are left flatlining with an almost unintelligible deep voice, like a kidnapper demanding ransom, only this kidnapper has little interest in such material things:
“I see it
The beauty of the earth
On my deathbed
But it’s too late
I’m such an idiot”
So the deep voice laments, over and over…and then it ends. “Earth” deservedly falls flat, reflecting to us our own attention toward the subject, not as intellectual or philosophical, but as practical, as how we might actually engage with our home on a regular basis. Earth, the song argues, should remind us of our fragility and of the miracle of our existence, should encourage us to be peaceful and inspire within us gratitude. Yet, we so frequently do not appreciate these effects “before we arrive” at death’s door, and by that point its powers are sufficiently missed. “Earth,” then, is a forewarning more than a plea to live with fullness, sacrificing its buoyancy to serve an example of living without, and embodies the grave consequences we so often take with us when we go.
“Mercury,” a somewhat jarring return to the minimal piano played first in “Neptune,” reflects further upon this idea of loss, connecting itself to the larger themes and overall concept of the record. Mercury is the messenger god of eloquence, and in kind Planetarium quietly delivers its own summarized message to an audience concerned with troubling times. The lyrics are pure and somber, serving almost as a confessional, plagued with echoes, confronted with the emptiness of the past, asking questions into the void. As the voice drops out, a spacey guitar gently blips its way in, overshadowing the heart-rending piano and maintaining the overall cosmic atmosphere of the album; it speaks to the vastness of space now less as a treacherous hole we may fall into and more as a place of discovery and flight—of cosmic possibility. But even this softly hopeful melody remains burdened by the final lines of the record: “All that I dream / Where do you run, where do you run to? / Carrier, friend / Where do you run?” The question serves both as an impetus for flight and a stone for submersion. “Mercury” allows Planetarium to stay faithful to the premise that learning to be human is confusing, painful, and hard. But it is also beautiful.
Planetarium is, itself, beautiful. It is a life narrative: watery birth, sexual maturity, external strife, long-sought wisdom, poverty and pity, self-effacement, tenderized regret. Its scope is vast, but its orchestral effects, its mythological allusions, its spacey backdrops—all can be understood as smoke and mirrors; the real promise of the record is deep, inward contemplation right here on Earth. Its title is fitting, then, as an admitted structure, designed to house the ideas these external worlds hold, but acknowledging itself as the very human vehicle necessary for the means. Perhaps what makes Planetarium the most human sounding is its frequent stressfulness—the record often pushes its listeners into realms of horror and anxiety, making the most of its electronic instruments by encouraging their abrasive sides. Yet it does this thoughtfully, sparingly, and turns the larger parts of the album—the passionate and heart-rending, the gentle and kind, the beautiful—into clear places of respite, allowing for a powerfully dynamic work as a whole. It is an album enjoyable on its first listen, profoundly expansive on every next. It is an album I can listen to in my solemn, smoky-cloud nights as well as my humdrum days. It is day. It is downtown. I am taking the BART train into the city to get lunch with a friend. I have been listening to Planetarium on repeat throughout my journey; at each stop, the train jerks out of the station and pulls forward in furious speed, and I can feel myself breaking out of orbit, going up, up, and up!—into auditory heights and abysmal depths.