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Sufjan Stevens et al

PLANETARIUM

4AD

Even an educated guess informed by the names of those involved – Stevens, Bryce Dessner of The National, Nico Muhly and drummer James McAlister – won’t come close to capturing what the 76 minutes of Planetarium, a conceptual song cycle about the solar system, sound like. Early tracks offer an electronically embellished nod towards the piano-driven simplicity of Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, but vocals suddenly pitch up or disappear behind vocoder effects. Opening track Jupiter burbles away beautifully until it’s shredded by machine-gun beats. It’s almost impossible to feel at ease during initial listens, so frequently are your expectations confounded. The orchestral leanings of Dessner and Muhly ebb and flow, taking flight during the majestic Pluto only for the track to then retreat to a Stevens vocal atop some skittering synth. 15-minute near-finale Earth is almost a précis of all that has gone before, leaving Mercury to conclude proceedings with a demure beauty. A true space oddity.

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