The word “desamor”, in the Spanish language, is so rich yet it’s virtually untranslatable in English. It describes something that is the opposite of Love, but it’s nowhere near Hate; it is a feeling that is lived with a certain existential drama in the moment in which a disappointment occurs that frustrates the personal expectations of the lover who has placed their trust in a person who does not correspond to them in the same way. Desamor is the emotion that permeates the scene in “Undercover”, the lead single off Music for People in Trouble, a record that addresses such complex themes in a way that feels both as a painstaking excursion through conflicted geographic landscapes and as a deep immersion into the really problematic regions of our minds.
After the breakthrough success of 2015’s Ten Love Songs, a work that will definitely be included as one of the decade’s best, Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør returns with an album that ditches the monumental orchestrations and the industrial flourishes that made her previous work so palatable in favor of wider spaces, where silence and contemplation play the major parts. In most of the tracks, we can hear Susanne only accompanied by plaintive piano chords or delicate nylon-string guitars, yet this is by no means a “stripped-down” acoustic record. This is still the woman that builds pop songs the same way Italian Renaissance architects build cathedrals, and Music for People in Trouble is a massive construction as well, but it’s the field recordings and the electronic atmospheres which provide that density, especially in the second half.
Perhaps the most telling element of the album’s sonic universe is the tonal shifts and the chord progressions of the songs. Opening number “Mantra” develops in a major key through the first verses, until it descends into the inherent darkness of its minor sixth when the soundscapes enter. The country-tinged “Reincarnation” revolves around some of the sweetest slide guitars in recent memory, moving through chords that inform the light/dark subject. Album centerpiece “The Sound of War” uses the melodic tension and harmonic exuberance of pastoral folk and early Romantic-period music — There’s something about that C#m key that just sounds apocalyptic — for a derailed madrigal that falls into an abyss of terrifying drones and violent textures. It is this year’s most appropriate song title in Pop.
Nonetheless, the record’s greatest moments don’t occur when Susanne explores Dolly Parton balladry, or even musique concrète, but when she fully embraces Jazz. Aided by the extraordinary performances of André Roligheten on saxophone, stand-out cut “Good Luck Bad Luck” presents Sundfør singing about the end of a relationship and ideological hopelessness (“The almighty scientist//Says most of the universe is empty and gods don’t exist//Well maybe that’s where our love ends up//No holy grail, just an empty cup”) before the song transforms into a smoky doom jam, almost as if it was taken from a Bohren und der Club of Gore session. “Bedtime Story” offers a different setting, one closer to the Joni Mitchell/Tom Scott jazz-folk escapades, spearheaded by Midlake’s Jesse Chandler’s remarkable clarinet playing. Even in later track “The Golden Age”, the arpeggiated chord progression that anchors both the vocals and the Moog melodies creates a sense of space that can only be experienced in Jazz recordings.
Music for People in Trouble, with its significant turn away from the commercial appeal of Ten Love Songs, is a strange album. It feels like a retreat to the basics but it is really Susanne’s widest-ranging exploration of themes, moods and structures. There are still echoes of her early work in the form of the John Grant-assisted closing track “Mountaineers”, but even the way this number consummates the album’s grand narrative is a departure of its own. For a record so sparsely composed, it’s perhaps her most stylistically consistent. And for a record so worldly, so concerned with the external, it’s the one that better reflects Susanne Sundfør inner present.