Before recording her new album Norwegian singer Susanne Sundfør travelled to distant corners of the world, taking photographs, meeting people and trying to make sense of life. When returning to the studio to record she decided to reject the technology that had been central to her previous album and go back to a more organic sound. The result, Music For People in Trouble, is an album of sublime songwriting and scope, which offers the listener a serene shelter from the storm.
A Mantra is a sacred saying, words you repeat in order to gain courage to live. This opening song is understated yet upbeat in its interpretation of the world. Susanne takes things often portrayed in a negative light: crows, sharks, the earth itself and honours their power. The pedal steel guitar creates a warmth among the blank empty spaces of this song.
Reincarnation begins with church bells, but this is not about religion. Here she sings of love, relationships, life itself with an unpredictability so often absent from pop music. We were loveless/it was pure bliss. The vocals and country influenced arrangement is hauntingly beautiful. Simplicity is this song’s strength.
Good Luck, Bad Luck takes us to the piano, in a smoky club somewhere. Then two thirds into the song it abruptly stops and a crackling jazz record starts, the saxophone filling the end of the song. This signals the beginning of the experimental part of the record. Starting with the noise of running water and birdsong The Sound of War is a seven minute warning to the world. The spiders take over, there’s chaos, drones among the atmospheric folk music. You can’t fault the singing or the ambition but this is strange music, an unsettling soundtrack to a dystopian dream (my dog freaked out when I was listening to this one).
Then the title track mixes odd electronic noises, with a spoken word discussion about the meaning of life. It feels like the soundtrack to an art installation which you have to create in your own mind. When the guitar begins to strum and the flute plays it comes as a relief, perhaps signalling a rejection of those sounds that have come before.
Bedtime Story is soaked in sweet sadness. Here memories of love, of happiness can get you through even the worst of times: the end of the world. All the birds are gone/ And all the oil’s been spilt/ And left us on this earth alone. The distinctive sounds on this album are created because the instruments are given solo time, allowed to breathe on their own.
Inspired by Dolly Parton, Undercover is probably the most straightforward commercial song on the album, about longing for a secret love affair. It builds into the most beautiful ending – pedal steel, percussion, piano and echoing vocals all melting together. Music might not be religion but if this song doesn’t save your soul then you’re a lost cause.
Then follows a song about how No One Believes in Love Anymore. Maybe it’s true, maybe the world has gone to hell but I swear just listening to the flute solo on this song will make you feel better either way. The Golden Age starts with a poem, then becomes cinematic and dreamy. The title is perfect – much like watching old black and white films this song takes you out of time to another distorted reality.
When John Grant’s deep voice begins in Mountaineers, he sounds far away – like he’s singing from down a well. The song eventually builds into an orchestral flourish of pain and hope. I listened to this song before I heard the whole album and found its eerie strangeness unappealing. However I’m glad I gave the record another chance because now I understand that these songs are not really designed to be listened to on their own. To understand this piece of art you have to immerse yourself fully in its dreamscapes from start to finish.
Susanne Sundfør has recorded one of the most interesting and inventive albums of the year. Music For People in Trouble is a comforting oasis of calm in an ever screaming world.