Planetarium by Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, & James McAlister
Through no fault of its own, this album is merely “interesting,” not phenomenal. I believe it’s hard to collaborate when you’re a fairly big name on your own — as the men in this “supergroup” are, especially Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner (lead guitarist from The National), both of whom have appeared on the Bacon Top 31 numerous times over the years. These artists must find it difficult to create something together that is on par with what they’ve created on their own prior to the collaboration. I’m sure there’s a great supergroup collaboration out there that I’m forgetting — one better than the sum of its parts — but it escapes me. It seems that the supergroup’s output is always going to be worse on the whole.
Be that as it may, Planetarium is worth repeated listening. On its surface, it sounds like an extension of my favorite Sufjan album, The Age of Adz (#3 in 2010), which makes sense given that these songs were originally written back in 2011. It’s difficult to pick out Dessner’s guitar work, but Sufjan is unmistakeable on the handful of songs on which he sings. And I’m unfamiliar with the work of contemporary classical music composer Nico Muhly or percussionist James McAlister.
Between the nice songs with Sufjan vocals are some meandering, orchestral oddities that oscillate from darkness and foreboding to light and airy, without providing much substance to speak of. And that is why we find the album here, near the bottom of the Top 31. Do be sure to check out the Sufjan creation linked in the video above; the man is a genius of both song and visuals. And while this album may not be the best of his output, give it a listen yourself and let me know what you think.