With her previous album The Brothel, Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør released one of the finest albums of 2010, but very few people in the UK turned out to be listening. This oversight now looks set to be corrected with the release of what is actually her fifth album (including last year’s orchestral work A Night At Salle Pleyel), but which many ears will treat as her de facto debut. The Silicone Veil is every bit as magisterial and conceptually loaded as her previous album of songs. Sundfør is a singer and writer unafraid to explore both her lyrical and musical preoccupations to challenging and sometimes uncomfortable depths. Sundfør glazes her music with an enticing saccharine coating that ultimately proves deceptive.
Once again collaborating with Lars Horntveth, the master multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger and composer from Jaga Jazzist, Sundfør has crafted evocative, rich and detailed accompaniments for her vivid, bewitching narratives. Whilst there are some nostalgic reference points (not least Depeche Mode on the stark, propulsive Diamonds), much of the crepuscular electro-folk on The Silicone Veil still sounds sleek and contemporary. The swooning strings also inevitably lend much of the material a cinematic quality that seems entirely appropriate for the hallucinatory nature of these songs.
As seductive as this material undoubtedly is, it also seems sinister and uncomfortable. On the title track, one of many tracks on which Sundfør is unafraid to push her vocal into its upper register (to wildly and theatrically dissonant effect as the music takes flight), she weaves a bizarre and troubling narrative (“I go to a funeral every day”). The garment of the title apparently enables her to “enter this world again as a ghost”. Indeed, the album seems preoccupied with images of death and the supernatural. From its opening lines (“there’s a killer among us”), Among Us describes not only the work of a killer, but also his apparent magnetic pull.
There’s also keening, romantic and melancholy qualities at play here, not least on the ballads. In some respects, they are close to being torch songs, but Sundfør’s delivery comes with an intuitive balance of drama and restraint. She is also masterful in her construction of melodies that are once appealing and unpredictable. Her lines rarely follow predictable or expected trajectories – and yet her songs are still as touching as they are techincally impressive, not least the astonishing, devastating When.
Sundfør and Horntveth are both meticulous in their approach, so it is hardly surprising that The Silicone Veil betrays an almost obsessive level of attention to detail. There are nuances in sound, harmony, texture and delivery at almost every turn. There are also sophisticated multi-layered vocal arrangements, notably at the spectacular culimnation of Rome and the elaborate, Björk-esque Stop (Don’t Push The Button). Sundfør is also particularly fond of unexpected codas that both surprise and delight. The opening Diamonds, relentless and creepy for much of its duration, ends with a peculiar burst of almost pretty sounding harp.
Selecting examples and highlights can hardly begin to offer an impression of the boldness and confidence of this wonderful album. Sundfør’s combination of careful, detailed arrangement and unrepentant magic realism is visionary and enriching.