It’s a curious thing that in the modern age we still have superstars specific to region. Unless language is perceived as an issue it would seem that any acclaimed and popular artist should be able to freely cross border after border, using the internet to stride neatly and comfortably over barriers of label, licensing, even cultural understanding. Yet you’ll find artists like Ireland’s Adrian Crowley or Australia’s Sparkadia operating at a major level in their home countries while finding little in terms of attention – from press or public – elsewhere.
Susanne Sundfør is a Norwegian heroine it would seem. With a series of number 1 albums in them there Nordic realms, signed to EMI Norway and even recently indulged with the release of an entirely instrumental orchestral album (A Night At Salle Plevel) Sundfor is something of a localised cultural force.
In this instance, perhaps more than any other currently noticeable, the rest of the world is missing out to an unacceptable degree. It’s likely we’ll have people listening to this record and to Sundfør’s outstandingly emotive voice and wondering what they have filled their musical lives with since her emergence in 2007.
Luckily they’ll have The Silicone Veil to hold close to their chests while they ponder how an artist of this significance has until now eluded them. This is an album of spectral, elemental romance and intrigue, playfully but precisely woven into a tremulous tapestry of seemingly ever-oscillating sound.
Of the tracks most easily identifiable as pop music here we have the spider web melodies of ‘White Foxes’ weaving through meandering piano lines and pounding, upfront synth with a hookline (“You gave me my very first gun”) worthy of Dave Gahan. ‘Rome’ shares that song’s obsession with jarring but ultimately satisfying cadances and tune. A ridiculously ornate structure sees Thom Yorke’s vocal stylings taken as a jumping off point, tiny seeds planted in the first minute eventually blossoming into great arcing ropes of musical holly and ivy, wrapping the listener, mummy-like, in an ‘80s retro-tomb or maybe a space-beat preservation unit.
While that may sound a little strange it’s important to understand that Sundfør is toying with wildly disparate ideas here, turning them into their own melted, melded genre. While the instrumentation on songs such as ‘Among Us’ (a serial killer tale that plaintively notes “He peeled off every vein I had/’Til there was nothing left”) is straight from an electro galaxy far, far away, the fairytale nature of her lyrics is entirely grounded in spiritual but earthy ethereal realms – on songs like ‘Can You Feel The Thunder’ we’re lost in the woods with a gorgeous but untrustworthy guide, unsettling notions like “I am nearly human/My body covered in buttons” leading us to the conclusion that we should “Kneel to the angels in high heels”. The direct simplicity of the piano playing on these more sparse tracks is reminiscent of the oft-overlooked Plush – never a bad thing.
There’s visceral and frenetically violent material to be dealt with here too. Much like Purity Ring’s Megan James, Sundfør shrouds disturbing poetry under layers of luscious musicality. Talk of guns, hearts in jars and separated fingers crops up as often as the more time-honoured mentions of snow, spring and sea.
The title track typifies exactly what’s going across the whole record. There’s the sickness and darkness – “My skin so thin you can see black holes within” and then there’s the orchestral beauty, the electro buzz and the traditional folk intonations of the melody. It’s simultaneously distracting for its tessellating component pieces and endlessly enveloping, depending on which part of the brain you choose to engage with.
These, then, are ghost tales told from both sides, and capable of transcendent beauty as on the Neil Young-covers-Cocteau Twins (yes, that good) heart-pull of ‘When’, a song that, if you aren’t careful, may just take you roughly by surprise and nearly make you cry in the queue at the café. Just saying, you know, it might.
The criticisms then are few. We very rarely step above mid-pace – perhaps a more extravagant jaunt into dance, seeing as you’ve got the kit there already might have been fun? It could easily be accused of intrinsic musical elitism – it’s a very, very clever record indeed BUT it’s also a uniquely enjoyable one. You don’t need to be a trained musician to know what feels good at the point of entry.
Sundfør will be compared in the media to various artists past and present that you’ll be able to list within 30 seconds of hearing one of her songs but it’d be reductive to do that here, such a pointless trawl through the usual clichéd suspects would it be. Suffice to say there are few of those names as relevant and fresh as Sundfør is right at this moment, further that the barriers and borders of countries outside her own should brace themselves for an epic and affecting expanse of musical beauty headed their way. The regional has become the universal.
Listen to The Silicone Veil