'Music for People in Trouble' or the Soundtrack to Rock Bottom
Susanne Sundfør made the album I didn't know I needed this year – she might do the same for you, too.
Photo via PR
This is a regular column where I'll mostly be writing about new music – not all the time – and feelings and how they both scrape an extra layer of enjoyment onto this whole existing thing. See you for the next one.
While exploring the Icelandic wilderness, alone and some distance from home, Norwegian musician Susanne Sundfør spots a car flipped over on the side of a road that cuts through the area like a main artery. "And … I just drive past it," she says to me, months later, "because I'm not thinking, you know? I just assume that somebody … slipped off the road, and now they've got out of the car." It takes about 15 seconds for her mind to realise that, hang on, "the headlights were on. There's probably someone in there."
Slipping across the black ice on foot after turning her car around and parking quickly, Susanne thinks she can make out a woman's silhouette inside. "I had to get really close to see if she was alive or not. I'm running, thinking 'she's dead', and I get there and see that she's just sitting, upside down in this overturned car, staring straight ahead, talking on the phone." The woman doesn't seem to register Sundfør at all, and by the time she flags down a passing car – "waving like a crazy person" – and waits to give a statement to the police, she's started to actually process what happened. Or rather, her brain seems to have finally caught up with her eyes, and the message her eyes had relayed to her mind. "Can you imagine? I almost drove past because it happened so fast. It's like your mind … you don't even …" She stops for a moment. "I can understand how people can act in scary situations because they're so surreal you don't even believe it." It was almost as though her eyes had to ping the message back to her brain twice, sending the nerve signals tingling. The first time round she wasn't quite there yet.
Sundfør's latest album, Music for People in Trouble, works in a similar way. Like so many records that swell and stretch with new meaning when you set them aside for a bit, hers unlocked a new layer of resonance for me, for reasons I'll come to in a minute. The album's elements are pretty simple, for the most part: piano, the odd flash of woodwind (what sounds like a flute of some kind on "No One Believes in Love Anymore", for example) and delicate, easy-to-miss use of synths – this time on "The Golden Age". Sundfor writes deceptively simple pop with swooping melodies and 'may make your hand ache as you stretch your pinky along the piano for the final note' chord progressions. At times her music sounds like a lullaby laced with wisps of a deep azure melancholy. In other moments, its evaluation of the shadows cast by lost love and pain shakes you awake. But at the centre of all of it is what I consider the most powerful instrument of all: the human voice. Specifically, its capacity to heal you when you've hit breaking point. On the album sometimes you hear it talking, whispering, chanting – more often, it's streaming out of Sundfør's body with a crystalline tone that I often visualise as a column of light made up of particles that sparkle like sand when the sun hits it just so.
In 2015 Sundfør released Ten Love Songs, an album of synthpop so pure it still cuts like glass when I listen to it today. Music for People strips back to the components of her earlier records, leading with vocals and guitar or piano. The subject matter on this record, though, bleeds across from drones and North Korea to how to scrape together the pieces of yourself when you've been ground into a fine powder by work, or heartbreak, or whatever makes your shoulders tense at night when you should be getting to sleep. In a recent interview, Sundfør spoke about feeling worn out before writing this album. To me, she says: "I was like a blank slate. I'd been working so much; I was just really broken. Because of that, I didn't really have any plans besides making a new album. I booked trips to different parts of the world" – Iceland, Spain's Pyrenees, the US, Guatemala and Brazil on her own; China, North Korea and Nepal with a friend – "to take pictures. And I was practising the guitar. That was my life. There wasn't any other purpose than to just write music about all the things I'd been thinking about and experienced."
The results are some of the most affecting new music I've heard in months. In sitting down to write this piece, I've found myself sporadically needing to turn the album off because songs like "The Sound of War" and "Undercover" have hit a nerve too raw for the walk to work in the morning, or the late afternoon lull in an open plan office. When it first landed in my inbox, Sundfør's voice transported me back to that part of my twenties where I careened along, completely unmoored, through the rubble of a relationship's end. Many women will know the feeling of stepping outside and seeming to egg on the world to play a role in your self-destruction – as if jeering, 'go on, hurt me if you like, I can't feel a fucking thing'. Making it home every night after throwing my body around Brighton was like both a victory and a loss. Somehow, a good seven years since that time, Music for People in Trouble lays bare that sensation. It's like a deceptively sweet soundtrack to rock bottom.
But in the days clustered right around the album's initial August release (it's since been pushed to an 8 September date), Sundfør became an arbiter for a strange and particular grief. Enough has been beautifully written about my former university classmate Kim Wall, who died in murky and horrific circumstances this month, so I won't rehash it here. Please read her journalistic work to cherish her memory, even if you didn't know her personally. But I'll say this much: someone I knew and respected was initially reported as missing then found dismembered in the water between Denmark and Sweden after trying to do her job. And on days when I couldn't keep myself from crying, Music for People in Trouble transformed from outlining the craggy terrain of past heartbreak to a salve for initial, hesitant mourning when anticipating the worst, then the burst dam that gushed as my fears were confirmed.
Everyone has particular bits of music they lean on when they need to be stood on their feet again. I don't know what Sundfør's album will sound like to you. But for someone who rinses as many Korean and Spanish ASMR whisper videos as I do per week, she taps into something that a well-dressed talking head in a documentary would probably relate to our connection to the timbre of the human voice, established when we're still floating in the womb. I tell her the album makes me feel warm, in the way those YouTube videos do. She chuckles. "One of the things I wanted with was for people to listen to it and zone out a little bit," she says. "I'm totally addicted to all my gadgets. Every night when I turn off the computer I'm like, 'ugh, I've got to stop doing that, I've got to stop bringing my computer into bed,' and I think so many people struggle with that. There's this constant flow, almost an attack, of information always around us."
She mentions how that's reflected in music too, with streaming and radio and digital radio: "It's very constant, this flow of sound. Now when I listen to music, it's mostly jazz and things that make me … zone out. That's what I wanted with the album as well: to be the kind that you can put on when you come home from work, which you can lie on the couch and listen to instead of putting on a playlist or whatever." She apologises for "rambling", but I get what she means. I agree that it sometimes feels like there's just so much music out there, but disagree that this is an album for tuning out. I find it grounding; it's not background noise.
Instead, sometimes I cry while replaying it. Not because this is Sad Music, but because this music is sharply pretty. It's not trying to be mawkish or clumsily emotive. Sundfør wields her voice like a weapon, every now and then deferring to the bassy rumble of a few men – John Grant on closer "Mantra"; her London-based friend Lewis on "The Golden Age"; naturist Andres Roberts who she interviewed on the title track, asking him to respond to the question: "what would you say to someone who has given up on life?". When that song starts, at first all you hear is an echoing voice, ricocheting off the inside of your head and punctuated by electronic staccato beeps that recall sound effects from 80s sci-fi. "Sometimes we feel like we have to grab it and do something with it," Milton says, dropping you into his thoughts mid-answer. "But then there's another way of looking at it, which is that life is like a wave. We catch it. Life is ready to happen and to unfold and we're just a vessel. We're like a ring, or something, and life happens through us. We don't do life; we don't choose life. Life does us."
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Music for People in Trouble is due out on 8 September via Bella Union. This article was amended on Thursday 31 August to reflect that Sundfør interviewed Andres Roberts, not John Milton.