Music for People in Trouble by Susanne Sundfør

Michael McKinney




Recommended if you like Kate Bush, Julia Holter,
Joanna Newsom
Favorite Tracks: 6, 7, 8, 10
FCC: None

Since the beginning of recorded history, the world has been ending. According to Norse mythology, it may have happened already, with two humans surviving each time to repopulate the planet. In Revelations, John allegedly wrote of Death, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse: “And I looked, and behold, a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” One wouldn’t need to go far into World War One’s Western Front to hear that they were knee-deep in the end-times. Apocalypses large and small have always lingered. We very well may be in the midst of one now.

In both disaster-movie cinema and societally-ingrained images, the main event is often cast as relatively immediate and noticeable: the freezing of Manhattan, the eruption of Vesuvius, the flooding of Atlantis. The largest disasters, though, are not always the ones rendered in 2012-style cinematics. They are often more insidious: on a planetary level, the slow creep of climate change serves as a time-bomb – not for the planet itself, but for our species’ modern way of life. Ever since the Cold War, irreparable nuclear damage – the “great filter” of societal annihilation – has formed another looming, quiet, and ever-present danger. As zombie-apocalypse movies, television, and books have thoroughly explored, the main danger may not be the threat itself, but how humans react to it. What does the internal reaction to an external crisis look like?

The most impressive thing about Susanne Sundfør’s latest record, Music for People in Trouble, may be how effectively it bridges the gap between interior and exterior worlds on the brink of collapse. Its ten songs rub ancient themes – love and destruction, loss and restoration – against each other until the distinctions become unclear. A “heaven of fireflies” is viewed from a drowning oil field; love is the only thing left on the planet after ecological disaster; a narrator sings of abandonment and ghost towns and incoming drones. But the songs rarely ring defeatist or pessimistic – perhaps despite themselves – with apocalyptic imagery paired with wild-eyed escapism throughout. While the backdrop may be calamity, humanity is still takes center stage; the main thing confusing the distinction is that Sundfør willingly subsumes herself to chaos, quietly and resolutely.

This acceptance of disaster may be made the most explicit on the record’s title track. Andres Roberts opens the song with a monologue. “Life is ready to happen and to unfold and we’re just a vessel … We’re like a ring or something and it happens through us, life happens through us. We don’t do life, we don’t choose life, life does us.” It’s punctured with electronic gurgles and fragments of other realities: choirs, strings, pitched-down voices. It’s disorienting, confusing and hard to tell what exactly any party is going for. But halfway through the track, once Roberts finishes speaking, a guitar takes the stage, its playing slow and deliberate, softly stretching a melody until an equally pensive flute joins it, playing just as simply and calmly. If Roberts’ message was of peace through submission and acceptance, then the instrumentation is showcasing the calmness that can arise out of the chaos, often out of the strangest of corners. The title track of Music for People in Trouble seems to present itself, and by extension, the record, as a balm for turbulence either underfoot or overhead – just look at the title.

Other tracks concern themselves more directly with the more personal strife, but even then, Sundfør frames it in a wide lens. “Bedtime Story” works as a forlorn shattered-love ballad (“The future’s conveyed, you know the chord before it’s played / Oh, what am I but a bad story you tell her?”) but reframes itself, making its internal destruction physical through stanza: “And when the nights are cold and strange and all the birds are gone / And all the oil’s been spilt, and left us on this Earth alone / I’ll think about the time you reassured me you were mine.” The record has a song called “No One Believes in Love Anymore,” and it’s just as wide-sweeping and dramatic as might be expected; outer space alone is framed as an escape from a world gone mad. “Reincarnation” features the same idea, but makes room for love and fear and grandeur, ideas that other moments try to shy away from; “the light” erases memories of kisses and starlight together: fires of all kinds rolled into one and snuffed out.

All this talk of scale may make Music for People in Trouble sound enormous. At times, it is – the slow-burn build of “Undercover” culminates with a continual explosion of spectral choir, piano, pedal-steel guitar, and percussion, with Sundfør exploding the desire for some sort of connection, no matter how fleeting, into a monument to possibly-selfish self-care; the closing track’s most striking moment is composed of piledriving vocal harmonies, shimmering organs, and a defiance – towards human laws, towards end-times, towards any prescribed narrative. But those are moments on a record that is largely quiet and subtle, though not laid-back; everything is too deliberately placed for that. After the final hurricane subsides, a much quieter, but equally demonstrative, moment emerges, the harmonies uniting to sing a new melody that’s quietly familiar. It echoes the first track, “Mantra,” which is less concerned with any of that than it is with one voice, one guitar, and a quiet scene shown through sketches.

Much of Music for People in Trouble works with a similarly reserved palette. Textures are spare and deliberately placed, with woodwinds and pedal-steel guitars given particular prominence throughout. This isn’t to say the songs are simple or straightforward: the instrumentation and mood bend to meet each other in the middle, finding a complexity both technical and emotional without coming off as overbearing in either direction. Many of the tracks put Sundfør’s voice at the forefront, with spacious clarinet solos, harpsichord rolls, and guitar twangs positioned both as accompaniment and partner, but even her most straightforward numbers contort in arresting ways without ever fully taking the spotlight from the microphone.

This results in some of the record’s most enthralling moments: “Good Luck Bad Luck” transforms from an intimate piano ballad into airy jazz, with a saxophone wafting through the air above lyrical upright bass and hushed drums; and “The Sound of War” is a similarly spare guitar-and-vocal track, until it isn’t – after a few minutes, its guitar gives way to a shapeshifting drone that is in turns suffocating and calming. Sundfør never quite emerges from the haze; her vocals are sung from miles away, rendering only tones comprehensible. On each of these tracks, as on the rest of Music for People in Trouble, Sundfør’s deft arrangements let her play with the space between notes, instruments, and words, making remarkably quiet and measured music that never feels underdeveloped and never shifts from her voice for too long.

“Mountaineers,” the final track of Music for People in Trouble, culminates in Sundfør having worked herself into a frenzy. After John Grant opens the track with images of “jumbo jets spiraling down like vultures of the stars / soaring above barren lands of boiling tar,” she counters by pointing out how beautiful the whole scene is. The duet, initially monastic, grows as her voice strengthens until she’s absolutely ecstatic, belting about how “unstoppable” “we” are. The calm has given way to walls of infinitely-refracting harmonies. Sirens wail in the background, but they don’t matter. She has become a force of nature. In the moment, it feels like what all of Music for People in Trouble has been leading towards, a natural conclusion of the scorched-Earth humanism employed up until that point. It also reveals the central complexity of the record: in embracing the sprawl and mess of nature, Susanne Sundfør has created one of her most focused and careful albums yet; and in the midst of several apocalypses simultaneously, she has found incredible strength and beauty.

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