Gergedan Müzik

Susanne Sundfør

“So, it’s definite, then” 

These are the words that open Susanne Sundfør’s extraordinary new album, ‘Ten Love Songs’. Casual but incredibly bleak, the inquiry sets the scene for a record that looks unblinkingly at the contradictions, hopes and fears, and the capacity both for rapture and betrayal that the human heart encompasses. Musically, the ambiguously titled album pulls Susanne closer to pop terrain than she has been before. Yet it also sings with the artistic freedom that has always characterised her work. Barring three tracks – ‘Accelerate’, on which she worked with Jonathan Bates, aka Big Black Delta; ‘Memorial’, with Anthony Gonzalez of M83; and ‘Silencer’, which saw her reunited with her long-time collaborator Lars Horntveth – the album was self-produced. “I wanted to feel a sense of independence in what I was doing,” Susanne says, “and I had very strong opinions about how it should sound. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since my early twenties, and I think I felt ready to prove to myself that I could actually do it. I’ve always had this insecurity about being completely independent in what I do – and maybe generally in life, too. But I’ve also felt this very strong desire to be free. So I think I needed some confirmation that I could do it. On some level, it is a very personal album; and given the themes, I wanted to do it exactly my own way.”

The album’s centrepiece is the 10-minute ‘Memorial’. A giant song whose first section gives way to a heartbreakingly beautiful and forlorn fantasia for chamber orchestra and piano that, though wordless, expresses longing, dejection and pain as powerfully as any words could, ‘Memorial’ epitomises the ambition of the album as a whole. And its central refrain – “You took off my dress and you never put it on again” – captures the vulnerability, self-knowledge and candour at the heart of Susanne’s songwriting. “People try to describe their emotions with numbers today, and in terms of science, which I feel is like the religion of today. It is very taboo to be a vulnerable person. It’s almost like the biggest weakness today is to be a human being, because everything around us is about perfection, as if we’re trying to be like robots. It’s sort of what Radiohead were portraying on ‘Ok Computer’, and now it’s actually happening. If I listen to music or read books where people are saying, ‘I’m very human, I feel a lot of things, bad things, good things,’ that’s what touches me.” I definitely didn’t intend the song to be that long, but when I was working on it, I knew it needed to continue, that it didn’t make sense for it to end sooner. I worked on the first part with Anthony, and he transformed it into a massive 80s ballad. He’s a genius, I think.”

The 80’s are a touchstone throughout ‘Ten Love Songs’. If there are moments in ‘Memorial’ that call to mind Freddie Mercury’s infamously flamboyant operatic duet with Montserrat Caballe on ‘Barcelona’, that suits Susanne just fine. “I love Queen, and Freddie Mercury. I saw Live Aid when I was about 18, they broadcast it on one of the channels in Norway and I was just sucked towards the screen when he came on stage. His charisma was insane. The solo on ‘Fade Away’ was also very inspired by Queen.” Such references were very conscious, she says. The song ‘Kamikaze’ is just one among several instances of pop’s textural and structural architecture informing the music, its huge canvas and furious propulsion recalling Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’. “If that’s how people react, I don’t mind that sort of compliment at all,” Susanne laughs. “’Kamikaze’ is a pop song, for sure. And that’s what I wanted to create on this album; I wanted to be more mainstream. Not in the sense of the sound, but in terms of expression. There is something about pop songs that, to me, hits me more than any other types of song do. I’ve been a sucker for pop music since I was a little girl, and I’ve always wanted to make a pop record. So I guess this is my attempt!”

As ever with Susanne, though, this “attempt” is constantly being subverted, as her experimental inclinations blur the pop picture. ‘Delirious’ is a prime example. Another huge song, it conjures up a sense of a battle, between melodic conformity and textural abandon. The vocal hooks and pulsating synth bass drive the track in one direction, the chilling choir and menacing ascending strings (played, as they are elsewhere on the album, by Trondheimsolistene) drag it back down into darkness, as the lyrics – “I hope you’ve got a safety net, ‘cause I’m going to push you over the edge” – turn the screw. This tension has long been a feature of Susanne’s work: melodic purity locked in a struggle with a creativity that obeys no rules.

The album also contains elements of humour though, albeit of a dark variety. Take for instance Susanne’s description of the percussion on ‘Kamikaze’. “I found gunshot samples on the internet. There is actually this drum machine that has a separate drum kit called Armageddon. It’s my favourite kit, lots of gunshots and grenades and bombs, and it’s fun just to run through all the sounds, it’s like mayhem in your ears. I met this guy in New York who makes synthesizers, Leon Dewan, and asked him to make plane-crash sounds, which is what you hear on ‘Kamikaze’. There are a lot of war sounds, and imagery, on the record.”

Alongside the aggression is a noticeable degree of vulnerability. ‘Darlings’, the hymnal opening track, sees Susanne sing with heartbreaking openness over a wheezing harmonium. And the penultimate song, ‘Trust Me’, is, both lyrically and musically, almost too much to bear. “You cannot replace me,” she sings, before the choir ascends, until the song ends on a chord of absolute bleakness and desolation. “Lyrically, I think ‘Trust Me’ is one of the most interesting songs,” says Susanne, “because it talks about relationships in a way that’s not necessarily positive or loving, but there’s still a lot of love there. I really wanted to portray different aspects of relationships. I prefer to read or hear or see aspects of humanity that aren’t always mainstream – or correct.” Is she aware that people may treat the album as autobiographical? “Well, that makes sense, in a way,” she replies. “Love is very personal, but it’s also universal – everyone feels it. You can’t go through life without loving someone, or you’re not a human being. To me, love isn’t always what it seems. The interesting thing for me about the album is that when I first started to work on it, I wanted to make an album about violence, and then, as I was writing the songs, there were violent aspects, but they were usually about love or relationships, how you connect with other people. And in the end, that turned out to be 10 love songs.”

After an intensive period of collaborations – with Anthony Gonzalez on the song ‘Oblivion’, for the film of the same name, starring Tom Cruise; with Röyksopp, on last year’s ‘Running to the Sea’ single, and covering Depeche Mode’s ‘Ice Machine’ for the duo’s ‘Late Night Tales’ compilation; remixing Maps’ single AMA; and, most recently producing ‘The Urge Drums’, the first album by the Canadian-Norwegian duo Bow to Each Other – Susanne has now answered the call of her own muse. Her journey to this point has been a fascinating and absorbing one: among the staging posts have been the melodious pop of ‘Take One’, the radical left turn of ‘The Brothel’ and the majestic, swirling, stormy electronica of ‘The Silicone Veil’. But ‘Ten Love Songs’ is arguably her most compelling and fully realised work yet. The fact that it ends with ‘Insects’, a sinister, predatory, disturbing song that is somehow both sensual and dystopian, seems fitting. This is what happens when we forget to love, Susanne seems to be saying. So ‘Ten Love Songs’ begins with a lament and ends with a stark reminder of a world without love. “Love and hate are closer than we want to think they are,” she says. Susanne’s new album negotiates that thinnest of lines fearlessly. If courage is a crucial factor in great art, she has it, in spades. What ‘Ten Love Songs’ cost her, we can’t know. But we have a duty, surely, to jump into the fray, too, and without fear.