Live Review:

Planetarium

Philharmonie de Paris

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words by tom johnson

photography by beth chalmers

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“As I Am About To Enter Your World

I Give You Blood”

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Those that witnessed Sufjan Steven’s Age Of Adz were treated not only to one of the great live shows but also to an overwhelming abundance of stage design, drama, and delivery; an otherworldly performance-piece that took the audience in to a whole other world. Stevens’ latest project, the Planetarium record which was co-composed with The National’s Bryce Dessner, multi-instrumentalist Nico Muhly, and frequent collaborator James McAlister, and released last month, takes on similar pastures to that aforementioned record – a sci-fi inspired bout of melodrama with suitably tender moments of escape – and while it’s both positively and progressively a collaborative effort, the live performance, this one taking place within the jagged and truly awe-inspiring walls of Paris’ Philharmonie hall, is undoubtedly his show. Front and centre, Sufjan might not conduct the whole thing in the atypical way that this hall will be accustomed to but he certainly guides the group’s magnificent spaceship that they’ve created right in to its beaming heart.

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Feeling as pertinent a facet of the show as the musicians themselves, the Philharmonie is transformed tonight by a huge visual backdrop which houses the ever-changing visuals that have been put together for tonight’s show and they lend an air of magical mystery to proceedings that might well have existed regardless but conjure up an even more spectacular display of space-age dramatics.

Like the little dashes of radiance that leap out of the dark corners of the record itself, the visuals too simmer and leap in to life, backed also by a lighting show that turns the whole hall, at times, in to its very own Planetarium; swirling stars and swirl. As stunning a venue as it is, such a thing would count for nothing if the music didn’t flourish within it, but backed by both a brass and string section, not to mention the sheer quality of the four creators, the Planetarium record simply thrives within the live setting, taking on even greater clarity and resonance as a piece of live, unabashed theatre. Sufjan himself, though front and centre, is somewhat muted, occasionally breaking in to those robotic arm-dance moves that adorned both the Adz and Carrie & Lowell tours, but mostly concentrating on the task at hand, shifting back and forth between multiple sets of keys, gadgets, scripts, and the three microphones that are utilised throughout; leaving the captivating scenery behind him as the key protagonist.

Preceding the main event, This Is The Kit’s tender and evocative opening acts as the quiet introduction to the evening – playing a selection of songs from past and present work with the same unhurried manner that makes her band’s performance such an endlessly endearing prospect, whether that be in a hushed club or the overtly plush Philharmonie – but as soon as the Planetarium lift-off behind there’s no time to stop and consider, no time to ponder what’s happening in front of you; the throttle hits and band and audience together power forwards, delving in to deep space for a fully immersive hour or so.

A high-point of the live show, more so than on its recorded counterpart, is the direct way it reveals each of the four musicians own craft and adornments. While Sufjan’s voice is an all-but ever-present vision, there are moments where the whole thing is stripped back enough to reveal a whole lot more than simply that. Muhly watches side-on, surrounded by pianos and computers, those watchful eyes holding everything in its right place as the ship glides on steadily; Dessner too is often given the space to truly shine, those prickly, arpeggiated guitar tones, so synonymous with The National’s undulating solitude, really coming alive and lending something all the more humane and tangible than the sweeping electronic flourishes; a definitive reminder of both their craft and his, if needed at all.

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Definitively delivered as one whole piece, there are still numerous highlights that leap out of the surrounding ether.

Venus” uses its striking video as the full-screen backdrop and offers a radiant display of bold and colourful imagery that truly transcends, while the monumental build of “Saturn” is even more powerful than its recorded equivalent, the final minute or so feeling like a fiery and immensely powerful break-through in to the stratosphere after the most rigorous of journeys. Greeted by a sea of open-mouthed awe, not to mention a level of poignancy as powerful as it is somewhat unexpected, it’s a wonderfully special moment of unabashed bluster that truly confounds, like a little that all those stars and planets really are just swimming up their above us all as our funny little lives roll forwards regardless.

If the encore – or perhaps the choice of songs – seems a little unnecessary in hindsight or from afar, it’s worth pointing out that the two tracks they performed inspired the whole project in their own little way, and both the vocoder version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow – complete with imagery from the film 1939 which draws an audible sigh when Judy Garland suddenly appears above us all – and a somewhat raw cover of ‘Space Oddity’ certainly holds a special kind of weight given what had been delivered across the preceding hour or so.

And then we’re released, back in to real world after this most precious of deviations, greeted outside by a large, golden-glowing moon that perhaps lingers with a little more resonance than before. Or perhaps not, in fact, because, as Sufjan himself says during his one address to the audience, the most fascinating unknown remains us. Us as people, as partners, as friends, as enemies, as strangers; as weird vessels of life and light that never really make any kind of sense save for those odd moments when we’re held in place by something greater; on evenings such as this one; as unspoken and unknown narratives that deliver intrigue and imagery, mundanity and miraculousnes.

Boundless, beautiful, and abundant” – Planetarium delivered it all.

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‘Planetarium’ LP is out now, via 4AD

You can buy it here

The band play two more shows – in Brooklyn and LA – from next week

Full details can be found here

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planetariumalbum.com

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