Review Summary: The Norwegian singer-songwriter ups her game on her sophomore album, and presents us with such an atmospheric album that it rivals most ambient artists in creating a world in the listener's mind; and it's a world you won't want to leave.
There's something so inherently ethereal in the packaging of Susanne Sundfor's second proper outing, that the young Norwegian singer-songwriter wouldn't really have to do too much musically to extend that atmosphere throughout the whole album. But what's most striking after having given The Brothel a lot of careful listens, is how tangibly that mood depicted on the album cover is conveyed for the duration of these ten tracks. If there was ever a decisive piece of evidence about the power of music to convey mental imagery more powerfully than people give it credit for, then this album, along with Ulver's 'Perdition City,' would certainly be it.
But I guess I'm avoiding the most pressing question for any readers of this review; who exactly is Susanne Sundfor? She's still relatively unknown, but is one of the many interesting new artists coming out of the burgeoning Scandinavian scene. Her first album, released in 2007, showcased her impressive ability for writing gorgeous pop songs, but on this, her sophomore work, she shows a much darker side, throwing in electronic effects, strings and whatever else will add to her vision as she begins to push the boundaries of the singer-songwriter genre far further than one would imagine was possible from such a new artist. You might not have heard of her before now, but sit up and take notice; she has every right to be the next Joni Mitchell, only with a darker side to her.
And that dark side is really what carries The Brothel. The title track opens the album, with a gorgeous, hypnotic rhodes piano line being the only companion to Sundfor's perfectly mastered voice. She has an impressive range, for sure, but her main asset as a vocalist is her sheer power. She doesn't ever quite 'belt out' any of her notes, but she delivers them with such passion, such presence, that the lyrics grab you and impress their imagery upon your mind in an effective manner. The title track grows and grows, until it climaxes in a black hole of strings and wordless vocals. It then gently descends back to earth, with an outro that sees Sundfor softly asking 'is anybody listening?' It's a hell of an opener, and I can only fault it because it's arguably the best song on the album.
But despite that, the other nine tracks which follow this superb first one don't fail to live up to expectations. The aggressive synths on Lilith create an immediate counterpoint to the preceding track, and, whilst grating upon the first few listens, really begin to 'make sense' the more you give them a chance. Black Widow continues the slightly ominous vibe of the first two tracks, and then the fourth track, It's All Gone Tomorrow, notches the quality back up a level, delivering a breathtaking myriad of styles combined into one captivating whole. Whether it's the taut strings of the intro, or the heavy synths of the verses, or the beautifully melodic chorus, the track doesn't let up, and by the time it's over, it feels like you've just come up for air after six minutes and seven seconds spent blissfully underwater.
It might well seem like the album had nowhere to go after two such brilliant tracks, but Knight of Noir proves that notion wrong, delivering what seems to be most peoples' favourite song of the album with probably the most fitting title for a song in terms of its music that I've ever heard. What follows after that brilliant midpoint is, astonishingly, not a drop in quality, but a continuation of all of the themes of the first half of the album, expressed more gently, with quieter synths and gentler melodies for the most part. And, I'll say it again, the most mesmerizing thing about this second half of the album is that it upholds the increasingly vivid picture that Sundfor has been painting.
Bizarrely for a Norwegian native, the overriding sense of place I get with this album is that of Victorian-era London. Every single second of this album works towards sustaining the world created by the deceptively gorgeous album art, and by the end of the final track, you feel so lost in the haze of the universe that it's been sucking you into, that it's almost too tempting to stay there forever. Much like Ulver's aforementioned 'Perdition City,' this album really does feel like 'music to an interior film,' but what makes The Brothel a better album, in my opinion, is the fact that it offers both this ambient, soundscaping quality and, that which is much more to be admired, it can also be viewed, equally, as ten almost perfectly written songs, with lyrics that tell a story that doesn't come into conflict with, but merely supports and builds upon, the narrative that the listener can't help but form themselves just based on the musical elements of the album alone.
And that really is, for me, where The Brothel succeeds so resoundingly. On the one hand, it's an album with some excellently composed songs, featuring effortlessly evocative lyrical prowess on display from Sundfor, who also exercises her considerable vocal talents. It's an album of musical innovation in her genre, but nothing is used to excess, and the balance is, pretty much, perfect. But the main reason that it's such an extraordinary album, rather than 'merely' an excellent one, is because not one second that wouldn't have helped Sundfor to create such an inviting world to dive into is wasted. Every single facet of the album helps you to stride into that most titillating of worlds, your mind's eye, hand-in-hand with Sundfor, the most artful director of your imagination that you could wish for. And in this respect, The Brothel is nothing but a triumph, an experience that manages to transcend mere 'listening' if you give it the appropriate levels of concentration. Had just a few weaker moments, such as the instrumental sections in Lilith and Black Widow, been cut, it might well stand head and shoulders above almost the entirety of the rest of its genre. But as it stands, The Brothel is an album that should be heard by anybody who claims to be a music-lover. Sundfor asks at the end of track one, 'is anybody listening?' And forty minutes later, at the end of the album, I'm inclined to respond with a most resounding, enthusiastic 'yes.'