For an artist, including cover versions on an album always comes with an element of risk. Get them right and new light can be cleverly projected on to familiar songs, and you can reveal hitherto unappreciated influences in the process. Get them wrong and you risk diluting the overall strength of an album or, worse, making you look too predictable or simply misjudged. For the large part of her career, Norwegian singer Susanna Wallumrød has cast such risks to one side, filling her albums with strikingly original covers to such a degree that it’s now one of the subjects most talked about when discussing her music.
Those included on her early albums, released under the name of Susanna & The Magical Orchestra, quickly caught attention, and the list of artists she has covered now features the likes of Kiss, Prince, Bonnie Prince Billy and ABBA amongst others. Recent albums however have featured more of her own compositions, proving she is much more than just a talented interpreter of others’ material.
Twelfth album Go Dig My Grave sees her incorporate traditional songs alongside the covers, and musically she reverts back to her original sparse, minimalist sound, enlisting the help of regular collaborator Giovanna Pessi on baroque harp, accordion player Ida Hidle and fiddle player/singer Tuva Syvertsen. Recent efforts may have incorporated a small degree of greater musical variety, but here the theme is slow and pure. It’s still a very Scandinavian sound – cold, clean and precise – but her source material this time comes from both sides of the Atlantic, centring more on traditional folk music and the theme of death.
Opening track Freight Train (by American singer Elizabeth Cotton) introduces the folk theme. It’s an accomplished enough outing but, as with the similarly coloured Rye Whiskey and The Three Ravens, it sounds as if she’s merely singing folk songs in a fairly straight style rather than offering an interesting reinterpretation like she’s done in the past. Somehow it feels less satisfying.
Later, The Willow Song is presented as a sedate lament while the title track is arguably the most minimalist the album gets in terms of arrangements. Like a lot of Go Dig My Grave it’s morose and downtrodden yet, buried below, also has a redeeming beauty to it. On Invitation To The Voyage, Susanna takes inspiration from a Charles Baudelaire poem, delivering arguably the best track on the album. The way in which she sings of “richness, serenity and pleasure” sees her at her sumptuous best, exploring and lingering over every inch of the musical ground in front of her.
The more well-known tracks here experience variable levels of success. She has covered Joy Division before and revisits them here on Wilderness. Vocally, the darkness of the original may be replaced by light but musically she does a good job in retaining it, albeit in a different way. The surprise flurry of accordion towards the end provides an appropriately unsettling accompaniment to the fatalistic, misanthropic lyrics. Out of all of the covers on the album it’s by far the most impactful.
James Shelton’s Lilac Wine has attracted many artists over the years and Susanna’s rendition here just about does enough to stand apart, being close to the one that Jeff Buckley popularised. Lou Reed’s Perfect Day has achieved a degree of omnipresence over recent years, and this may partly contribute to why Susanna’s version doesn’t quite hit the mark unfortunately. It is from a different world no doubt but, to less experienced ears, it could be (incorrectly) placed into a sentimental Christmas television advert soundtrack shaped box.
Go Dig My Grave might not hit the heights of some of her earlier albums, and is certainly a more uneven collection, but it shows Susanna to still be fascinated by the power of sad songs and in possession of a distinctive, singular ability of re-presenting them.