Norwegian artist Susanna Wallumrød was last heard as the orchestral arcade apostate of 2016’s Triangle, but she’s perhaps better known for her melancholic avant-garde covers of “Jolene” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, as well as Meshes of Voice, her 2014 LP of duets alongside compatriot Jenny Hval.
An attraction to dramatic storytelling and a mining of stateside vinyl stores has resulted in Go Dig My Grave, a collection of ten tracks produced by Susanna and Deathprod that incorporates Jean Ritchie’s Appalachian folk, French poetry, English opera, and yet more Joy Division.
It begins with Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train”, a modestly beautiful contemplation of death and spatiality, remarkable because it was written in her teens and not recorded until she was in her 60s. The lyrics have a virtuous innocence that carried through into her later years, and here they retain the romance – if not the charm – of Cotten’s original: “Freight train, freight train, run so fast / Freight train, freight train, run so fast / Please don’t tell what train I’m on / They won’t know what route I’m going”. In Susanna’s composition they're entwined by Giovanna Pessi's baroque harp and Ida Hidle’s amiable accordion, like ribbons of vines on an archway. It’s an affectionate tribute and, like much of the record, what it lacks in soul it makes up for in sentiment.
For the most part, Go Dig My Grave shows an appreciation that steers clear of sober reverence; these are well-worn and world-weary songs to be enjoyed, not artefacts to be handled in a sterile environment with special gloves. Sometimes, however, these reworkings miss the mark. “Perfect Day” is wound like a music box with focus and care, ignoring the accordion as it looms large in the background. Susanna studies each line like a sceptical inquisitor, gathering herself to deliver the final verdict with a bitter satisfaction: “You’re going to reap just what you sow”. Where Reed’s original was an exercise in simplicity and ambiguity (or was it?), this version feels like it has removed those questions and replaced them with decisions. It seems an uneasy fit on a song so exquisite that even Reed could never quite capture its essence again.
When it turns its attention to folk standards, however, Go Dig My Grave strikes some rich veins of gold. On the title track, Susanna’s cold, crystalline voice recounts the tale of a young woman courted and deserted by a railroad worker (yet another exemplar of folk music’s obsession with death and trains). At the outset she has only Hidle's accordion for company, before Tuya Syvertsen draws a rasping bow over her violin and invites the inevitable tragedy. It’s a sublime track, rousing instruments from slumber only to have them play a devastating funereal dirge. Just like her take on Joy Division’s “Wilderness” it is imbued with an unsettling, unnatural animation; this is unholy, zombified folk. A somewhat warmer highlight is her affectionate fireside rendition of “Rye Whiskey”, treading to the ponderous rhythm of Pessi’s harp before rocking drunkenly off balance into discord, picking itself up, and returning to sing in unison: “If the ocean was whiskey, and I was a duck / I’d dive to the bottom and drink my way up / Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, rye whiskey I cried / If I don’t get rye whiskey I surely will die”. These may be stories that have been told before, but Susanna's gift for invention and narrative embellishment will make you want to hear them again.