Above: Susanne Sundfør at SPOT 2010 (Photo © Martin Dam Kristensen, thanks to Henrik Friis)
More on Denmark's SPOT Festival in due course.
But the live show which shut everything else down was by Norway’s Susanne Sundfør. I’d heard beforehand that she was good live, and was also familiar with The Brothel, her latest album (issued in Norway in March). This was something else – the intensity of her delivery and total command was benchmark stuff. Her band was at one with the music: strings, backing vocals and a jazzy, pin-sharp drummer It came back to the songs and how she puts them over – total avoidance of anything that might seem familiar. Fender Rhodes piano washed over everything, bringing an almost church-like atmosphere. Pedal steel drove this further still towards the unusual. Yet, this was accessible.
The Brothel is a great album. As songs unfold they veer off in unexpected directions. Sepulchral overall, there’s little point here in going on about the specifics of the music as it’s probably out there on the internet.
However, the themes of The Brothel do bear examination. Susanne Sundfør has told the Norwegian press that the album is about where the beautiful and the perverse meet, how she wants to take the dirty and perverse in man and make it into something aesthetic and beautiful. The Brothel appears to be a series of allegorical vignettes set in a brothel: seen from the view of a woman. It’s grounded in cultural references: the line ‘restless nights in cheap hotels’ is a quote from TS Eliot’s The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock. Employing Lilith as a song title references both (Jewish) biblical imagery and feminism. Throughout, both religion and death are specifically conjured up, along with images of submission and disjunction. There were hints towards this in the lyrics her first album’s (released in 2007) Day Of The Titans, but The Brothel is fully-realised, a thematically fully-formed work.
The approach is underpinned by her acceptance speech after being awarded a Norwegian Grammy for her debut: “I am first and foremost an artist, not first and foremost a woman.” Naturally, that caught the attention of the Norwegian press.
And the link between her music and other arts has continued from her debut with The Brothel being a "creative project between Susanne Sundfør and Kristin Austreid.” Visual artist Austreid was responsible for the artwork seen in the package of the 2007 debut. That debut was obviously problematic as Susanne Sundfør largely re-recorded it in a stripped-down fashion, leading to the release of Take One in 2008.
Musically, both versions of the debut album are probably closest in tone to Laura Nyro at her most baroque. The Brothel is beyond this, both in the arc of individual songs and arrangement wise. Jaga Jagist’s Lars Horntveth produces and plays various (many) instruments but the keyboards, various percussion and string arrangements are Susanne Sundfør’s. This must be seen as a collaboration. Most strikingly, vocals on six tracks were recorded in the Olso tomb of Norwegian artist Emanuel Vigeland.
There is no doubt that Susanne Sundfør is major artist. The Brothel is an outstanding album. The live show confirms that.