Hushed sadness is her current muse.
(Photo: Rachel Shewen/thathurt)
I spent much of the mid-90s immersing myself in Nick Cave’s back catalog. Murder Ballads may have been my entry point, but I much preferred the chaotic clamor of Tender Prey and the melodic tension that ran through The Good Son. However, I clearly remember the moment I first heard The Boatman’s Call in 1997. I was driving through Arizona and picked up a CD at a second-hand store. After opener “Into My Arms,” I skipped from track to track, each a spare, melancholy ballad. It’s hard to believe now, but that album felt so stylistically different than anything else Cave had done before, a true outlier in his catalog.
The same can be said for Susanne Sundfør’s new album Music for People in Trouble. On the Norwegian singer-songwriter’s last album, Ten Love Songs (2015), Sundfør draped her somewhat downhearted pop songs in dance music trappings. Collaborating with electronic music juggernauts Röyksopp and M83, Sundfør went big on sound on Ten Love Songs. So, like the shock I received when first hearing Boatman’s Call, I wasn’t’ ready for the quiet and empty spaces that surround Sundfør’s delicate ballads on her latest record on my first listen.
Sundfør’s intimate performance at Portland’s Holocene not only highlighted the spare songs of Music for People in Trouble but its spare sound as well. Though new material did dominate the 13-song set, Sundfør also dressed some Ten Love Songs favorites in the hushed sadness that is her current muse.
Despite the sorrow that pervades her recent compositions, Sundfør seemed upbeat and talkative at the show. She said it was her first time in Portland and that she had eaten the best doughnut of her life at Voodoo (note: only tourists go there), prompting the audience to shout out other, better places to get a cruller. This perkiness served as a paradox, one that kept the evening from sliding entirely into sadness. On one hand, these songs are about broken hearts, but the concert didn’t need to feel like one.
Sundfør opened with “Mantra” from the new album, sitting at a keyboard all alone. She moved from keyboard, to piano to guitar over the course of 70 minutes, showing off not only her prowess on those instruments but her fantastic voice. Even if the songs on Music for People in Trouble are sparser than her older output, the live versions were even more naked. Gone was the steel guitar on “Reincarnation,” for example and the saxophone on “Good Luck Bad Luck.” Multi-instrumentalist Jesse Chandler accompanied Sundfør during most of the set, showing off his skills as a classical pianist, a flautist and a clarinetist.
Sundfør made a decision not to turn the concert into a dance party. Older songs such as “Accelerate” appeared in the set, but instead of night club ravers, they morphed into love-sick ballads. And for the encore, Sundfør returned alone to play “Trust Me” on the piano. Sometimes musicians need a sudden tonal shift. Nick Cave fans cannot think of his oeuvre without The Boatman’s Call. Music for People in Trouble will likely hold a similar place in Sundfør’s discography.