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Susanne Sundfør
Music For People In Trouble Gary Kaill , September 5th, 2017 15:45

On her first album since her international breakthrough, Sundfør makes a startling, thrilling left turn.

With her fifth studio album, 2015's Ten Love Songs, Susanne Sundfør distilled the experimental songcraft of her earlier work - a rich aesthetic that lovingly dismantled electropop norms - into an unexpectedly accessible whole. With the emphasis on synths and melody, and with the Norwegian sculpting an ever-accessible live persona, her fanbase expanded outside of her Scandanavian stronghold (she's had three No 1 albums back home). On songs such as 'Darlings' and the epic fantasia 'Memorial', Ten Love Songs retained some of the 'what does this button do?' spirit of its predecessors, but its biggest thrills were also its leanest. 'Accelerate', 'Delirious', the stomping beats of 'Fade Away': they all exemplified Sundfør’s newly streamlined mode.

Now, on her first album since her international breakthrough, Sundfør makes a startling, thrilling left turn. In place of those electro foundations Music For People In Trouble has intimate and disquieting chamber pop, built from simple tools (acoustic guitar, piano, minimal percussion, woodwind) and arranged with precision. Her voice, always a beautiful thing with its craggy vibrato and defiantly anti-pop tone, finds its natural home here. Rendered in untouched close-up and illuminating detail, Sundfør becomes a more material presence.

Album opener 'Mantra' draws a line back to the Susanne Sundfør you (think you) know and simultaneously draws the line: its mournful intro minor chord is kin to Ten Love Songs’s 'Kamaikaze', but delicately picked on nylon-strung guitar. "I’m as lucky as the moon / On a starry night in June," she sings. By the time pedal steel and distant, pealing church bells appear, Sundfør is "stardust in the universe / That is all that I am worth." This sharply under-dramatised prelude is barely there but it carries the weight of an overture. And it sets the thematic tone, capsuling its creator’s place in a shifting, distressing world, fusing the elemental and the personal ("Do you believe in reincarnation? Cos I thought I saw your soul," Sundfør sings on 'Reincarnation') and presenting her expansive worldview in bold and unflinching close-up.

Sundfør gradually builds her soundboard and Music For People In Trouble develops as an expertly sequenced piece. 'Good Luck Bad Luck' introduces piano, double bass and baritone sax; all contribute to a disquieting, darkly beautiful coda. 'The Sound Of War' begins with birdsong and the sound of cascading water, and frames its guitar-led backing almost as field recording. "The buzzing of the drones!" warns Sundfør, and later in the song they appear: a whirring, seething cacophony, and a reminder that despite its deliberate and eloquent schema, Music For People In Trouble is a quietly brutal record - one recorded in breaks between Sundfør travelling the world, observing those parts (including North Korea, the Himalayas, the Amazon) certain to change irrevocably in the coming years, and campaigning for environmental awareness.

'Bedtime Story' documents both a fractured world ("And when the nights are cold and strange, and all the birds are gone / And all the oil’s been spilt, and left us on this earth alone") and a broken heart ("I always thought my life would be the saddest story') but this is Music For People In Trouble’s most lyrical moment: a sweeping fusion of piano and clarinet that recalls the heady, jazz-flecked adventuring of Joni Mitchell and her woodwind virtuoso Tom Scott on For The Roses. Throughout, Sundfør seeks reason to believe - this is a record that documents the deepest sadness but swerves self-pity - but, ultimately, the world (hers, ours) falls short. The deeply moving 'Undercover' ("Don’t trust the ones who love you, cos if you love them back / They’ll always disappoint you, it’s just a matter of fact") and, well, a song called 'No One Believes In Love Anymore' are proof enough of that.

But the closing 'Mountaineers', recorded with John Grant, makes for an emphatic and uplifting ending: one alive to possibility, self-belief, and the recognition that choosing to stand and fight is surely no choice at all. Over a drone backing, Grant and Sundfør fashion a powerful hymn: “What we are, what we want, will never change / We will break through your walls, unstoppable." It’s the song that an album so couched in introspection (and, on occasion, the harshest self-assessment) needs, and it acts as a compelling coda to a grand yet finespun drama. "I think a lot of people experience anxiety these days," said Sundfør recently. "I wanted to address these emotions on the album." And how. She turns experience into art with a painter’s eye and a warrior’s heart, and Music For People In Trouble is a profoundly humanist work: her finest by some distance.