Very few musicians are capable of taking their audience on a trip through the cosmos.
For most of his career, Sufjan Stevens has focused not on the stars but rather the majesty and anguish of life itself. His discography is akin to a musical road trip, one that has traversed several states, with pit-stops in lands of psychedelic opulence (and even a few excursions to the North Pole). On Friday night, however, Stevens chose to stop sticking pins in a terrestrial map, opting for something far grander: the solar system.
Released in June, Planetarium finds Stevens joining up with drummer James McAlister and The National’s Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly. Together, the quartet has made an album with tracks dedicated to each of our solar system’s nine planets — yes, that includes the dwarf trans-Neptunian object known as Pluto! — as well as more peculiar facets of space like Halley’s Comet, the Kuiper Belt, and black holes.
Friday night’s Oakland performance marked the final date of the tour convened to mark the record’s release. The stage was filled not only with Stevens, McAlister, Dessner, and Muhly, but with a string section and other assorted musicians. Together, they amounted to a constellation in their own right, a living breathing assortment of energy that played in the light cast by a ever-shifting arrangement of trippy, galactic visuals.
Ever the raconteur, Stevens took time between songs to recall how his parents owned a number of New Age books, including one that spoke of “star people” who infected humans through celestial fungi and were able to amplify their powers by consuming quinoa. Sometimes, the most far-out things really are to be found in our living rooms, it seems.
During another break, Stevens shared some of the insights he’d gleaned from a recent MSNBC report on space. One such factoid was the revelation that some believe the universe has a consciousness.
“These songs aren’t really about outer space, but inner consciousness,” he added.
On the heels of Stevens’ masterwork, Carrie and Lowell, the sounds of Planetarium don’t feel very small. There are generous helpings of auto-tune, fanciful detours into electronic dissonance, and production that isn’t afraid to be bombastic. Given the subject of the material, one can understand why a song about Jupiter might be given some extra oomph, but the cost of embracing the kitchen sink is losing the nuance that has long enriched Stevens’ work.
As a live spectacle, the evening was unquestionably spirited. Creating the celestial cacophony that underpins songs like “Venus” and “Mars,” the band easily filled the Fox with stardust-sprinkled synth and falsetto. Yet the fragile moments were in way portals to what might have been. The beauty and longing of Stevens’ voice on opening track “Neptune” and the slow, methodic build the begins “Earth” — the heart of the album — were both highlights and reminders that, at his best, Stevens is in no need of musical parlor tricks to create sounds every bit as profound as the worlds he celebrates on his newest record.
Interestingly, the highlight of the night may have been an encore that consisted of covers. First up was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which Stevens and company played with a slowed, reverential wander. Then came “Space Oddity,” an on-the-nose choice both for its subject and the recent passing of its creator, but a perfect coda to the evening nonetheless.
“The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you,” Neil deGrasse Tyson once proclaimed.
That may be true, but when it does make sense, how grand it can be. In the case of Stevens and Planetarium, the moments of connection — to the work that has brought Stevens such acclaim, to the sounds that have carried The National to their post as one of the world’s preeminent rock bands — were the brightest lights of all.
If space is infinite, how lucky we are to live in the sliver that they, too, occupy.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Judy Garland cover)
Space Oddity (David Bowie cover)