Susanne Sundfør’s sixth album ‘Music for People in Trouble’ represents a not unremarkable volte-face in stylistic approach; one that sees the Norwegian arrive where she started.
Sundfør’s return to the pared-back songwriting of her early career, is in stark contrast to the lush, at times almost hedonistic synthpop of her 2015 opus, Ten Love songs. Gone the dissolute vortex of Accelerate, in its place a return to the maudlin majesty of masterpieces such as her 2012 contemporary dirge White Foxes.
Notwithstanding that seismic shift in direction, Sundfør’s music remains flush with the same eclectic array of influences – American folksters Carly Simon, John Denver and Joni Mitchell, along with piano-man Elton John – that have been a constant since her formative years and Music for People in Trouble above her other albums is awash with traces of their sounds.
Given Norway’s rich heritage of jazz, (there are prestigious jazz academies dotted throughout the country), it comes as no surprise that the legendary Leonard Cohen is also cited as having influenced Susanne’s songwriting techniques. Cohen’s influence is most apparent on Good Luck, Bad Luck, where patch samples of smokey jazz cut through sparse acoustic minimalism, to add darkly moody textures to an otherwise intimate, unadorned soundscape.
Mirroring the lyrics’ intimate nature, Sundfør’s score is grounded in acoustic strings and piano, woodwind and the occasional use of bass and drums, creating a paradoxical sense of beauty and unease.
“I’m as empty as the earth, an insignificant birth, Stardust in a universe, that is all that I am worth”
The wafer-light mournfulness of album opener Mantra recalls Ten Love Songs’ Kamikaze. It sees Susanne offer up the tenderest of vocals offset by softly picked guitar, but bolstered by the addition of some fine steel pedal and a coda filled with the joyous peal of church bells. This understated prelude sets the thematic mood of ‘beautiful emptiness’ in an ever-changing, troubled world; a world paradoxically ‘filled with voids’ caused by failing love affairs and human destruction.
“Beauty is a key word. That feeling of emptiness that I think people get sometimes and how it can be seen as something beautiful. Because it’s quite contradictory. How can nothing be beautiful? But it can.” – Susanne Sundfør speaking to The Telegraph
Lead track Reincarnation is as akin to a Lee Hazlewood composition as it gets, recalling the American’s idiosyncratic nuanced bluegrass sound. Once again the steel pedal guitar triumphs on what is an enchanting journey from mother earth to heavenly realm as angelic choral harmonies glide over slide.
“And we were loveless, oh it was pure bliss something I’ve never felt before”
Opening with sounds of birdsong and babbling water, The Sound of War is an eight minute epic where cacophonous ‘buzzing drones’ pillage pastoral perfection. A sharp reminder that notwithstanding its reverential eloquence, Music for People in Trouble is a quietly unsparing, sequenced composition. Recorded during breaks between Sundfør’s extended world travels which took in North Korean, the Amazon and Himalayas, the album is replete with both her visual and aural observations of a world destined for irreparable social, political and environmental change.
“No-one knocked on the door, you reap what you sow, no-one knocked on the door”
Steering clear of self-absorbed wallowing, Sundfør pushes for hope in a record that diaries deep sadness, albeit one lined with beauty, with a world that continues to disappoint. By addressing raw emotions such as anxiety and despair, Susanne Sundfør has turned negative ‘real-world’ experiences into a precise and bold piece of art with both a social and environmental conscience.
The despairing No One Believes In Love Anymore, with its sublime Oriental coda, and heart-achingly touching single Undercover, with its feather-light piano and angelic chorale, both attest to that.
Speaking of Undercover, Susanne explains: “I was inspired by Dolly Parton when I wrote Undercover. She’s a genius songwriter, and I’ve listened to her throughout my whole life. I go on all these musical adventures but somehow always come back to the country and folk music. It’s close to my heart, maybe because I listened to it in my childhood”
Music for People in Trouble sees the Norwegian’s music turn full circle, arriving back at these very childhood folk and country roots, albeit with a matured demeanour that’s more eyes wide shut than ingenue.
Most of the album’s accompaniments are limited to a single instrument, pushing Susanne Sundfør’s pristine vocal to the fore where it shines before fading away to leave many of the songs to take a lyric-less second form, allowing emotions to flow through richly textured instrumental outros.
The emphatic counterpoint to that is album closer Moutaineers, a gothic bombast of a duet recorded with music giant, John Grant. At once unnerving and uplifting, it is a potent chant shrouded in introspection. Preternatural in its power, electrifying in its textures, it is as compelling a finale to a deftly woven soundscape as you’ll find.
With this album, Susanne Sundfør offers solace to the world-weary and beleaguered, her lightness of voice, serenity of sound and deftness of touch providing much needed relief.
A masterpiece of beautiful disquietude, Music for People in Trouble is an album that takes the listener to very intimate and unsettling places.
Music for People in Trouble is out now via Bella Union. Susanne Sundfør will embark on a Europe-wide promotional tour for the album on 12th September, dates below, after which the tour will move to the North Americas. Full details on http://www.susannesundfor.com/
‘Music For People In Trouble’ Tour:
September 12 – Helsinki, Finland – Savoy Theatre
September 14 – Paris, France – Les Trois Baudets (SOLD OUT)
September 15 – Brussels, Belgium – Orangerie-Botanique
September 16 – Köln, Germany – Artheater
September 18 – Amsterdam, Netherlands – Vondelkerk (SOLD OUT)
September 20 – Berlin, Germany – Silent Green
September 21 – Copenhagen, Denmark – Studio 3 (SOLD OUT)
October 2 – London, England – Union Chapel (SOLD OUT)
October 3 – Glasgow, England – CCA
October 4 – Manchester, England – Deaf Institute (SOLD OUT)
October 7 – Dublin, Ireland – Sugar Club
October 12 – Stockholm, Sweden – Soda Teatern (SOLD OUT)