Music for People in Trouble is nothing short of a personal and professional triumph for Susanne Sundfør.
Susanne Sundfør’s Music for People in Trouble is just that. And we are all in serious trouble, given the current socio-political climate and state of foreign affairs, let alone our own personal trials and tribulations. This is reflected in the stark, almost monastic music Sundfør proffers on this, her latest full-length and first for Bella Union. The result of her own personal breakdown following the near universal success and critical acclaim heaped on her previous release, Ten Love Songs, Music for People in Trouble could just as easily have been titled Music from a Person in Trouble. It’s full of unsettling sounds: atmospheric crescendos and creeping dread (“The Sound of War”), haunting pedal steel (“Mantra”) and, throughout, Sundfør’s hauntingly ethereal vocals.
Yet there is some degree of comfort and reassurance afforded within, either through chordal resolution or the intimacy with which she performs, affording listeners the titular solace. On the spoken word passage that takes up the first half of the title track, we are informed that, “We don’t do life. We don’t choose life. Life does us.” With the last words left hanging in the air, a gently plucked acoustic guitar – later accompanied by an airy, lazily circling flute – carries the song to its gentle, consoling conclusion. It’s just enough of a soothing aural balm to treat the harshness of the sentiments which precede.
On the Waitsian cabaret/noir “Bedtime Story,” she delivers one of her most vulnerable – and thus affecting – vocal performance on an album full of them. “Because you never meant it when you said that it’s alright/ Because it wasn’t really ever what I had in mind/ The damages are clear, take the pain, I take the fear/ What’s the devil but a good negotiator?” she virtually sighs, exhausted and resigned. Here, too, she employs a lyrical device utilized throughout in which the microscope is directed at the other in one verse only to be pointed right back at her in the next: “Because I always meant it when I said it would go wrong/ Because I always thought my life would be the sad song/ The future’s conveyed, another chord before it’s played/ Oh, what am I but a bad storyteller?” Augmented by the haunting sound of footsteps echoing in a hallway, children moving within the speakers and other sonic ghosts, “Bedtime Story” is anything but a lullaby.
But it’s not meant to be. Nothing here is meant to be outwardly comforting or reassuring. When we find ourselves in times of trouble – or sadness or sorrow – we seek solace in the sad songs that surround us. “Don’t trust the ones who love you/ ’Cause if you love them back/ They’ll always disappoint you/ It’s just a matter of fact,” she advises on the ultimately euphoric “Undercover.” “Pain is pleasure/ And then just pain,” she muses on “No One Believes in Love Anymore.” To be sure, these are far from comforting observations, yet there is solace to be taken in the emotionally visceral manner in which Sundfør sings.
Often accompanied by little more than an acoustic guitar, piano or flute – or some combination therein – Music for People in Trouble plays on an isolationist theme in which other instrumental voices are occasionally called upon to provide support, both literal and figurative. These extended instrumental passages (see: “No One Believes in Love Anymore,” “The Sound of War” and “Good Luck Bad Luck,” in particular) help to show that, though she is feeling isolated and alone, Sundfør is anything but.
Indeed, this seems intentional given her post-breakdown globe-trotting, fully immersing herself in the sights and sounds of other people rather than the silent isolation often favored by the despondent. This searching for answers in the presence of others is ultimately what informs the basic principles behind the album’s title. Taking that which she experienced in the time since Ten Love Songs and putting them all in a complete piece, she manages to – without having to say as much – provide the reassurance needed by those in trouble. While musically and lyrically bleak, there is a lushness and warm familiarity inherent throughout that serves both its titular purpose and also makes for heartbreakingly beautiful art.
Label mate John Grant lends his singular talents on the closing “Mountaineers,” built on an unsettling drone and Grant’s monotonic vocals. It, like “The Sound of War” before it, eventually finds the silver lining within the darkness as Sundfør’s voice joins and eventually overtakes Grant’s. “I cannot help but marvel at the beauty before my eyes/ Neck deep in black water, swimming in the soil of your wasted oil,” she coos before gradually building to a spectacularly transcendent finale replete with cathedral-filling organ, an angelic choir and her own powerfully melismatic vocals soaring ever upward. This stands in sharp contrast to opening track “Mantra” with its measured acoustic guitar and just Sundfør’s voice, showing the light at the end of the tunnel. Music for People in Trouble is nothing short of a personal and professional triumph for Susanne Sundfør.