Review Summary: Oh, what am I but a bad storyteller?
When I put Music for People in Trouble
on for the first time, I was nonplussed. It wasn’t because of it being such a major stylistic shift within Susanne Sundfør’s arc (admittedly though, also a surprise), no – it’s the strange sense of growth and maturity that becomes so apparent before its opening track even reaches the halfway mark. Maybe that’s a weird thing to say too; she is not exactly a star shedding her whimsy after getting some increased exposure and gaining a platform (after the success of Ten Love Songs
, in this case). Sundfør has always made thematically dense pop, and Music for People in Trouble
is no exception. The difference lies in the exterior: almost completely absent are the full orchestrations and electronic flourishes that made her music so palatable, her lyrics a little easier to digest in the first place. What we are left with is a woman quietly stripped of her shell, bare and brittle; a wistful storyteller, aged, made both wiser and more troubled by her experiences. It’s just Susanne now.
If it sounds like it’s shaping up to be totally barren and aimless, more akin to something like Mount Eerie’s most recent album (subject matter aside), let me clarify. Where an album like A Crow Looked at Me’s
beauty surfaces in its emptiness, its grief stricken stumbles and falls, Music for People in Trouble’s
comes from a more composed, resolute sadness. If anything, Susanne shows more of a likeness to our Leonard Cohen types here, opting to hold thoughtful predication above momentary impulse. Here, she seems truly grounded by her melancholy, unwavering in her stance and accepting of the misfortunes that befall her. ”No One Believes in Love Anymore” is a cut from the latter half of the album which represents the most obvious example of her stark blasé: we hear only a slowly arpeggiating piano accompany our detached muse, who laments, “No one believes in love anymore / They throw away the keys, no one knocked at the door [...] Pain is pleasure and then just pain / Chasing the thunder and lost in the rain.” In lesser hands, lines like these could easily drift into unseemly melodrama, but it’s Sundfør’s resigned delivery that seamlessly binds these words to her pervasive reality. She knows who she is, and more importantly, where she is, in an all too familiar and imperfect world where the longing for and struggles of love seem to bring more pain than it could all be worth.
Still, it should be said that this record is, in the most literal sense, not another Ten Love Songs
. There are several other songs about love here, sure, but the group of “people in trouble” Sundfør refers to in the title extends much further than to just those mending a broken heart. In her view, Music for People in Trouble
should not be seen as any sort of “therapy” at all, actually; she’s not trying to address or solve anyone’s problems, but rather show us that there is solace in knowing that we don’t need
to understand everything (or anything, for that matter) that is going on – whether our concerns are in our own tiny sphere of influence or otherwise.
This is perhaps why Music for People in Trouble
feels like the first time Sundfør has weaved her deeply personal craft into something that feels truly universal. It doesn’t hurt that many of the elements which made her prior work so engaging seem to translate with such ease to a more subdued style – most apparent being Sundfør’s voice itself. As one would expect, it is softer, more reflective than before, but the fire which has driven her vocals to explosive heights remains – it’s just turned inwards here. However, there are moments where it becomes too much for Sundfør to keep a lid on, like in “Undercover,” where she repeats her longing words over and over until she realizes no one is listening, only to release her building frustration in a jaw-dropping display of her power and range. Sundfør is joined by John Grant in the unsettling, but similarly powerful “Mountaineers,” where the duo conjure macabre imagery of crashing planes and vast oil spills in a drawn out choral style. Time passes, the two join their words, and very gradually increase in volume until suddenly, Sundfør casts these thoughts aside in a moment of sublime defiance. She realizes, in another instance of beautifully harmonized vocal splendor, that there is a mindset, a determination that can triumph in the face of the overbearing darkness of the world, so long as we make an effort to choose it. It’s astounding, both on its own merits as a song and also as a closing segment to an album which spends so much of its time finding grace in sorrow; it forces us to realize that maybe we should just accept that there are things beyond our control and that we can actively choose happiness, even if just for a moment.
It’s moments like these where it is so easy to be swept up by Sundfør’s familiar emotional appeal, but truthfully, they would be nothing without the diverse palette from which the rest of Music for People in Trouble
is formed. Sprinkled throughout it are buzzing drones (“The Sound of War”), smoky saxophone and a thumping double bass (the end of “Good Luck Bad Luck”) and most surprisingly, an almost-country tinge and some beautiful finger picking (“Reincarnation”). On paper, none of these seem like they should go together, but it just works. Maybe it makes more sense when we look at Sundfør, whose inspiration for much of the album came from travelling around the world and being exposed to drastically different cultures. It feels like each fragment of that experience has been put through the same lens and recontextualized into something that is entirely Susanne. That’s the important part, right? I did say in the beginning that “it’s just Susanne now.” But this is a Susanne that is more worldly, more knowledgeable, and more understanding than she has ever been before, and Music for People in Trouble
is her way of making that truly mean something.