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Three Songs No Flash

I Cannot Help But Marvel: Susanne Sundfør at Way Out West
Michael Hann , August 14th, 2018 14:04

At Gothenburg’s glorious Annedal Church late on a Saturday night, Susanne Sundfør creates a spectacle to truly serve her music

Those who say that the only thing that matters is the music, that everything else is a distraction, are wrong, just as they always have been. If Elvis had looked like Bernard Manning, he wouldn’t have been Elvis. If the Sex Pistols had come on-stage looking well fed and smartly dressed, and treated the world with respect and lovely manners, they wouldn’t have been the Sex Pistols. The curious paradox of Susanne Sundfør’s show is that by turning her last album, Music for People in Trouble, into an audio-visual spectacular – by apparently providing distractions – she encourages the audience to concentrate more closely on the music. The huge screen and the constant visual stimulation prove that sometimes it takes more than music to make the music the thing that matters.

We are living in a golden age of stage production. This year alone I’ve seen three shows that have each, in their separate ways, been breathtaking. Taylor Swift made the stadium show feel like being in a fairground on a bank holiday weekend when you’re a kid - a constant explosion of sensation. Katy Perry’s arena production, designed by Es Devlin, survived its star’s awkwardness by virtue of being like an endless series of showstoppers from a Hollywood Golden Age musical. Most startling of all, David Byrne proved that the simple act of removing the fixed points of drum riser and backline from the stage means a pop show can truly become theatre.

Sundfør’s show, though starker and more ascetic than those others by far, ends up being even more powerful. It’s not an easy thing to produce: earlier in the afternoon, she told me it had been put on fewer than 20 times, and the Way Out West appearance would be only the third outside her native Norway (there had been one performance in Stockholm, and one staggering evening I witnessed at the Barbican in London). It’s too expensive to take so many musicians out on the road, and hard to find venues where the visual and sonic elements can work perfectly alongside each other. So the remaining shows to promote Music for People in Trouble will be back to just her and one other musician.

The conceit is simple: across the front of the stage hangs a gauze screen that carries projections: waveforms, images of the cosmos, what look like architectural plans for oil rigs, and sometimes close ups of Sundfør singing, blown up to arena screen size in a much smaller space. Behind the screen, in the shadows, are Sundfør and the band: she is the only one who gets a spotlight, but it’s hardly an ego trip, because all the musicians wear capes and hoods. The only hood that comes off is Sundfør’s and then only for a few minutes during ‘Undercover’, when suddenly she is bathed in warm light for the only time in the show: it’s a moment of ecstatic release, visually as much as musically, like a snowdrop blooming through the frost.

The effect is to take what was a singer-songwriter album, albeit a very good one, and transform it into something far more. Usually, the live experiences strips songs back; this show expands them and extends them, turning a 44-minute record into a 70-minute performance. The arrangements are bigger, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in astounding ways. ‘Reincarnation’, a country song that on record is little more than Sundfør’s acoustic guitar and voice plus a pedal steel, becomes a full band performance without ever sacrificing its subtlety. It’s like seeing a line drawing filled in with watercolour. The instrumental coda to ‘The Sound of War’, by contrast, goes the whole Pink Floyd, turning into lowering space rock (Floyd feel like a reference point elsewhere, too, when ‘No One Believes in Love Anymore’ begins with several minutes of hammering double bass that’s far more percussive than melodic, remarkably like ‘One of These Days’).

But the truly overwhelming moments come when Sundfør allows her voice to unfurl and soar. As ‘Undercover’ comes to a close, she suddenly ascends the scales, an exercise in technique that’s anything but arid. It’s as if she’s reaching not for articulacy but for pure feeling and unmediated expression, something that goes beyond the constraints of rationality. As backing vocals form a wordless choir behind her, the church location feels more fitting than ever. The odd thing is that ‘Undercover’ could easily be a power ballad – give it to Céline Dion and it’d be a Vegas staple – yet it’s testimony also to the ineffable magic that an extraordinary talent can create.

It’s surpassed, somehow, by the closing ‘Mountaineers’, the synth washes of the recorded version replaced, fittingly, by an organ. Again Sundfør’s voice becomes the centre of the performance. There is no melisma, no signifier of emotional intent other than the swelling volume and the rising pitch, but the effect is to make one feel as if in the middle of some huge turmoil; it’s as if everything Sigur Rós had spent their entire career trying to achieve had been effortlessly boiled down into three minutes of singing.

It’s an astounding show; it’s also, surely, a dead end. When you create something wholly original, any attempt to revisit it offers diminishing returns. By performing this show so few times, Sundfør has made sure it won’t become simply ‘the tour she did in 2018’. It’s a memory that just a small number of people will have. That I got to see it twice feels like a miracle.