Planetarium At Hollywood Forever, Thursday July 20th 2017
Sufjan Stevens wants to put consciousness right at the center of the universe, his ‘Planetarium’ album is a beautiful musical exploration of our solar system with the help of The National’s guitarist Bryce Dessner, drummer James McAlister and music composer/arranger Nico Muhly. If there is a song for each planet, they have also included the sun and the moon, which are not planets as everyone know (and I am not even mentioning Pluto), but this is not the only freedom Stevens takes with science. And why should I bother with science during a music performance? The problem is that the concept of the album brings up scientific questions, our place in the universe, whereas Sufjan quoted famous scientists during the night, while adding his own spiritual punctuation to cold scientific statements.
‘Planetarium’ is a concept album and this unique collaboration between the four musicians won’t be played a lot, only four performances were scheduled in July, and I was lucky enough to attend their performance at Hollywood Forever on Thursday night. I say lucky because it is a beautiful, even spectacular show, each planet comes to live with giant visuals, throbbing lights, lasers, colored smog and of course music, it’s a hymn for the universe, although we are not escaping the solar system, but it’s an ambitious project with Sufjan’s emotive vocals and abstract metaphoric lyrics traveling through space as if it was the ultimate church. The music is complex and wanders between melodies, with strings and horns, a large keyboard played by Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner’s shimmering guitar, and menacing electro beats, the result is symphonic, vaporous and reflective, as the only thing that I could not really stand was the vocoder Stevens sometimes used – it’s something I am allergic to – changing his voice as if he were the next rapper,… Why making the only human element sounds more like a cyborg if you want to find solace in the cold dark universe?
However, there were plenty of human moments, Sufjan talked many times between the band’s operatic space exploration, and of course the location of the show, the Hollywood Forever cemetery, was the first thing that he mentioned: ‘Welcome to Hollywood Forever cemetery, where you go to die forever,’ he welcome us with, ‘I was wondering if forever is modifying Hollywood or cemetery,… nothing is forever but we have this moment…. And we must remember ourselves that the universe is abundance and eternal… and even though we are surrounded by death in this environment, let’s proceed with life and vitality! Let’s explore space together!’ Sufjan talks with a very different voice, much deeper than the eerie falsetto he often uses for singing, his joking tone contrasting with his sad and innocent singing voice.
Each song resonated like a personified ode to a planet, ‘Venus’ was obviously ‘sexy’, while ‘Jupiter’ sounded like a triumphant din of horns defying the rules of the Universe, and I was not sure at this point if he was still addressing to the giant planet or his own father or even god,…‘Father of light, father of death, give us your wisdom, give us your breath’… ‘’Hurricane heart hurricane haste wandering star, put in its place, Sermon of death says Jupiter is the only contest’… This is what you get with Sufjan, and you don’t always get it for sure, but the universe is mysterious right?
Sufjan certainly wanted to get deeply philosophical that night, quoting one of the most famous lines from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson: ‘We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us’.… ‘the universe is under no obligation to make any sense to you.’ However, someone like him has something to add to that: ‘Despite of this apparent senselessness of the universe, we have every obligation to make sense of ourselves in the universe and to make sense the universe within you… you have so much potential for making sense of yourself… you are an abundance of cosmic erotic energy and you are beautifully made, so just carry it around with you for the rest of the night’. And it’s difficult to disagree with this, even Neil deGrasse Tyson would certainly agree we have to make sense of our lives, as it is not in contradiction with the absurdness of the universe, but ‘cosmic erotic energy’ and ‘beautifully made’? This may have sounded too new age to me but it got even weirder a bit later.
The peaceful start of ‘Mars’ mixed with wonderful visuals, followed by even more stunning ones during ‘The Sun’, ‘Moon’ and ‘Earth’, certainly added layers to the poetry of the show, that Sufjan definitively wanted to taint with his unshakable optimism, ‘That was the Sun,’ he said after the song, ‘the center of all things, the source of all life, light,… and love’, he added after a sigh… ‘and we reflect that’. And this is where Sufjan makes me cringe a bit, but he is a Christian songwriter, there’s no mystery into this, he has a blog called ‘Lord Have Mercy’, so what else should I expect? He ended up telling about his parents‘ love for New Age books and crystal healing and the story of the star people infiltrated by celestial fungus coming from another universe, a fungus which could give them an universal knowledge? I told you it went very strange!
‘Moon’ had a sort of Radiohead-ish vibe, adding intriguing strings when the songs progressed in a more contemporaneous experimentation, and as the planets paraded in front of our eyes, Pluto, Saturn,… Roman gods and personal references intertwined together into a melancholic soundscapes, then reclaiming human’s evil nature during ‘Saturn’, which evoked cannibalism, chemical addiction, bloodshed while hypnotic and subliminal visuals brought the crowd to a euphoric level.
Sufjan got very talkative between songs and before the longest track of the album, ‘Earth’, he went back to senselessness of the universe, ‘Science teaches that the natural world is chaos’, then elaborating on how, we, humans were designed to be the ‘antithesis to chaos’, bringing once again consciousness as an answer to this lifeless universe.
‘There is no life on Mars, Earth is my favorite planet, I am not going anywhere’, said Sufjan just before ‘Earth’, a majestic and intriguing Bible-inspired song, which departed into auto tuned R&B delirium vocals, while the closer, ‘Mercury’ and its weightless hymn-like melody had to be my favorite track of the album, and they must share my opinion as they kept it for the end. Everything seemed to be embracing the cosmic, the personal and the biblical at once, in electronic and adventurous arrangements.
The encore was a bit strange, and I don’t see any other reason to sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ than the old theory that the Wizard of Oz movie coincides with Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’? Or is it for its rainbow reference? However Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ was a given after this ramble through space, but we were very far from Major Tom’s cynical alienation from the world. Sufjan seemed to be embracing the whole universe as the canvas of his personal turmoil, while Planetarium mixes science, myths, religion and punctuates the natural world’s chaos by a generous expression of love for humanity.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow