John Preston reviews the startling new album from Susanne Sundfør.
Susanne Sundfør is first and foremost a singer-songwriter as opposed to a musical genre artist. Her last album, 2015’s Ten Love Songs, was conceptual in that it was a conscious attempt at making a predominantly electronic, pop album that dispensed with the more frivolous tropes and instead concentrated on the very dark side of love. Music for People in Trouble retains Sundfør’s knack for uncanny melodies but returns to her earlier sound, one that is acoustic and slowed down.
For listeners who first discovered her with Ten Love Songs, and there were many, this will come as a shock and is likely to be a record that fails to deliver the massive, euphoric sonic highs anticipated, based on this previous album. Music for People in Trouble has the same kind of melodramatic and extrovert song structures as that album but Sundfør has replaced the electronic for the human, but retains her experimental edge for moments when you least expect them.
Sundfør travelled the world with Ten Love Songs and toward the end of touring began to feel a disconnect with the strong electronic element of this record and wanted to return to instruments that were more organic and didn’t require a socket. She suffered from a depression of sorts and collected sounds globally that have partly informed Music for People in Trouble, a title that speaks for itself and considers the impact music can have on chaotic and suffering psyches.
The potential healing on this record is derived mainly from Sundfør’s crystalline and soulful voice; both classical and accessible, it stuns with its power and grace. Music for People in Trouble starts pretty and nonthreatening: plucked guitar and folk-style melodies immediately confirm we’re certainly in different territory from before, but it would be premature to assume that you’ve heard the full intention of Sundfør’s fifth album just from its opening numbers.
There is nothing that you can dance to on Music for People in Trouble, unless by dance you mean interpretive, and because it is less dependent on a beat to make a connection, it is a record that you really need to hear properly to understand it. Without the primal aspect and effect of certain rhythms it demands your attention in different ways, and it does a very good job of this.
Take for example the old fashionably warm, plaintive piano-led ‘Good Luck Bad Luck’ about the fine line between the two versus the drastically different outcomes of both. The piano ends just before the amplified, final word (‘cup’) and then there is silence and a hazy saxophone lead jazz motif dramatically fades in to close the song. I thought that the track had stuck and then skipped, and possibly another track had started. There is a lot of this type of disruption on Music for People in Trouble.
‘Mantra’and’Reincarnation’ both feature steel guitar, with a nod to Dolly Parton at her most humble in ‘Mantra’in particular, with its closing peal of church bells, recalling beatific calm. ‘The Sound of War’, a near eight-minute odyssey, opens with bird song, a babbling brook and a sad melody with lyrics that suggest an imminent doom: ‘chaos remains . . . the buzzing of the drones’. Sonically, ‘The Sound of War’ is the most challenging and schizophrenic track here. Following the acoustic but gentle melancholy of the song’s first half, the electronic drones do in fact arrive and lead to a startling and terrifying climax. It’s ambitious and odd, and works on every one of its many levels.
Sundfør’s songwriting ability has never been in doubt but with the worldly wise attitude of ‘Bedtime Story’ she is an effortless match for early, pre-Hounds of Love Kate Bush with a song and performance that stuns in its immediate simplicity and confidence. The shared vocals with John Grant on album closer ‘Mountaineers’ are otherworldly and zen-like – Sunfør’s part in particular like a piercing solar beam of hope. A fitting end to an album that demands that you hold it close. Its secret can only be disclosed once a trust has been established allowing Susanne Sundfør to make a connection that it is palpable and moving.