Live Music + Gig Reviews

Susanne Sundfør @ Barbican, London

21 May 2018

Susanne Sundfør

Susanne Sundfør (Photo: Raphael Chatelain/PR)

Susanne Sundfør’s starring role year’s at last summer’s Songs Of Scott Walker Prom brought her, and particularly her show-stopping voice, to a wider audience. Tonight’s show at the Barbican however saw her perform her own songs, specifically those from last year’s Music For People In Trouble album, alongside visuals projected onto a screen in front of her and her band.

Mantra opens the show, Sundfør alone on stage with her guitar, submerged in darkness. Gradually it becomes apparent she’s wearing a black cloak and hood, an indicator of what sort of theme and mood tonight’s show will take. Musically, it’s a skeletal beginning with images of planets and space flickering on to the screen. Any thoughts that tonight will be a faithful recreation of the album start to recede with Reincarnation. The song’s arrangements are expanded, and eerie pedal steel guitar added. Visually there’s much in the way of self-concealment, but vocally Sundfør couldn’t be more convincing or penetrating. Her delivery is exquisite, holding on to notes dramatically, loading lyrics with weight and conjuring up dark, inscrutable atmospheres.

Good Luck Bad Luck is imbued with an added sense of intrigue and mystery and ends by heading off in a free jazz direction courtesy of her six piece band. It’s clear that the album is being transformed and strengthened live. On record these songs mostly have a lightness and fragility but live they take on a heavier and more tenebrous feel. The title track, with its use of ominous drones, sees her further subvert her own music. As it slowly drifts into more esoteric territory, Sundfør seems to disappear before reappearing elsewhere on the obscured stage. The acoustic backdrops are shelved in favour of vocal samples playing out on top of electroacoustic textures and the music seems to momentarily move into another, stranger world.

It’s hard not to draw comparisons to her Scandinavian contemporary Anna von Hausswolff. They undoubtedly share common elements but while von Hausswolff’s black-hearted music is overt and unambiguous in how it confronts the listener, Sundfør’s is on the whole more implied, nuanced and shadowy – yet arguably ends up even more powerful as a result.

On Bedtime Story she sings of how she “thought my life would always be a sad song” and we’re engulfed by a sense of beautifully subdued introspection, the elegiac woodwind solo extending it right up to the end of the track. On Undercover the floodgates reach breaking point and burst open under the sheer sentimental weight. The highly personal nature of the track sees her symbolically remove her hood for the only time during the show, her emotions laid bare. In short, it’s one of the best vocal performances we’ve seen in years.

No One Believes In Love Anymore sees her lament how “the world has gone off its hinges” as images of aeroplanes and buildings fall from the sky. There’s a feeling of the world closing in on itself. If anything, the show gets heavier the longer it goes on, and on Mountaineers it reaches a pulsating, emotion-shredding finale. It’s a startling, theatrical, overwhelming performance that reveals the true value of live music and also shows Susanne Sundfør to be a very special musician, one capable of making striking artistic statements.

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Susanne Sundfør – Music For People In Trouble
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