This recording elevates one of 2017’s best albums to even new heights.
The 2017 studio release Music for People in Trouble saw Susanne Sundfør mostly strip away the synth-pop stylings from her previous albums and turn her focus towards quiet and emotional guitar and piano ballads. By placing her jaw-dropping vocal capabilities in the spotlight, Sundfør confronted an internal and external world of melancholia. Recorded in London in 2018, Music for People in Trouble: Live from the Barbican builds upon this material, showcasing Sundfør’s voice even further and adding an intoxicating density to the already enveloping atmosphere.
Over the course of a few special performances of the album in Scandinavia and one in the UK, Sundfør escalated the impact of her music with an immersive audio-visual production. With the band and stage set behind a massive sheer curtain on which images and live video were projected, the multimedia experience raised the soft, intimate material to an operatic scale and gave a singular weight to these small run of shows. It’s not exactly like being there, but this live album is a rewarding document of these performances.
Running an additional 15 minutes longer than the studio version, Live from the Barbican expands its source with indulgent, smoky interludes and extended improv and free jazz riffs. The first real example of this added space comes in “Reincarnation,” which features a saxophone solo and an ambient, pedal steel outro that leaves listeners floating in the ether until the warm, grounding sounds of the piano come in at the beginning of “Good Luck Bad Luck.” The band gives a more substantial musical base and a somber, winding clarinet solo to “Bedtime Story,” which originated as a simple piano tune.
“Undercover,” the emotional center of Music for People in Trouble, remains the most hair-raising moment on Live at the Barbican. The slow build of piano chords, with Sundfør and back-up vocals reaching an absolutely immense climax, is perhaps more invigorating in a live context than in the studio. In the aftermath of that euphoric peak, a lively, five-minute double bass solo allows some time for reflection and to recompose before coming to the final act. “No One Believes in Love Anymore” and “The Golden Age” continue the precedent set by the rest of the album, with heart-stopping vocals and increasingly engrossing instrumentals that swirl and wander before reaching the album’s final, empowering and astonishing crest, “Mountaineers.”
Written in response to a period of personal emotional turbulence and growing anxieties over the increasing environmental stress on our planet, the troubles that Sundfør refers to in the album’s title resonate throughout and lend drama, despondence and humanity to the music. As much as the lyrics of Music for People in Trouble may address romantic love, in the core of this work Sundfør confronts the end of the world and tries to find some light amid out cosmic insignificance. The closing lyrics of “Mantra” set the tone for the entire project: “I’m as empty at the Earth/ An insignificant birth/ Stardust in a Universe/ That is all that I am worth.” The studio melodrama of the original could have easily become overindulgent, but Sundfør’s bursting vocals and consuming soundscapes are so mystifying that it’s nearly impossible not to be overtaken by the cinematic brilliance of this music all over again. While listening to Live from the Barbican may not replicate these spectacular shows, Sundfør’s goal of total immersion into this world is accomplished completely, and the recording elevates one of 2017’s best albums to even new heights.