Friday, November 21, 2008

Austerity and Sadness

Susanna - Flower of Evil (Rune Grammofon, 2008)

Susanna Wallumrod is one of the most prolific and uncompromising artists currently at work, with four albums in as many years to her name. Whilst last year’s ‘Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos’ focussed on her own writing, ‘Flower of Evil’ represents a return to the interpretative role she first adopted with her Magical Orchestra, although the orchestra is now no longer credited. Wallumrod remains remorselessly single-minded in her approach. Anyone hoping for a change of style or pace from her previous work, which veered between the melancholy and funereal, will not find it here. She seems very much dedicated to ploughing the same meticulous furrow with every release.

There are, however, some subtle nuances and variations to her method here that help her sustain a process that might otherwise have run dry. There’s now less focus on wispy electronics and more on Susanna’s own glacial piano playing, which makes for a more organic sound. The texture is enhanced and moods heightened by the guitar playing of Supersilent’s Helge Sten.

Luckily, this means she hasn’t suddenly embraced showy virtuosity either – the X Factor school of singing is never even hinted at here. Instead, there’s a kind of dignified restraint – an icy exterior that barely conceals untold depths of emotion. One of Susanna’s great skills as a singer is to alter the impact and perception of a song so radically as to make it her own. There are some extremely judicious song selections on ‘Flower of Evil’ that really play to her strengths.

Turning Thin Lizzy’s macho ‘Jailbreak’ into a heartbreaking ballad seems like one of her most perverse moves to date. Like her version of AC/DC’s ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’, it succeeds not so much in feminising the song (she still refers to ‘me and the boys’) but in locating the vulnerability, inadequacy, perhaps even the impotence inherent in male aggression. It becomes a song of frustration, anguish and repression in her hands.

Even better is her extraordinary reading of Abba’s ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’, which draws out the full extent of the desperation in the lyric. It becomes less about desire and much more about possession and control. It’s a reminder that for all their garish, giddy, camp appeal, Abba’s most significant achievement was often to set tremendously painful words to music so infectious that it became imprisoned in the brain. Their music really was a form of mental torture.

Perhaps ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ is a step too far into the realms of greatness, for no amount of remodelling could really improve on Sandy Denny’s peerless delivery. Having said that, I understand that Cat Power also took on the song for the ‘Jukebox’ sessions, no doubt straying wildly away from the original melody in the process. Susanna’s version simply re-emphasises the cautious beauty of the original, and has made me want to return to those wonderful Fairport Convention and Sandy Denny albums, really some of the best examples of British popular music.

Elsewhere, there are some less ubiquitous, more recherch√© choices, as well as two thematically and musically connected original compositions. ‘Dance On’ is an unusual, underrated choice of Prince song, whilst takes on Tom Petty’s ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ and Black Sabbath’s ‘Changes’ both soften the source material and provide new, spidery intricacies. It’s also good to hear her take on the mysterious, difficult terrain of a Will Oldham song with ‘Joy and Jubilee’.

Indeed, for all Susanna’s undoubted individual talents, perhaps this album’s most major coup is the presence of Will Oldham himself on a couple of tracks. He not only lends his voice to the aforementioned ‘Jailbreak’ but also to a mordant, reflective and highly moving rendition of Badfinger’s ‘Without You’. In all honesty, I’ve never really liked this song – particularly since Mariah Carey’s histrionic caterwauling made it so thoroughly dislikeable. Yet there’s something very different about this version. The dynamic never gets above a hushed whisper and the whole atmosphere seems both muted and haunted. There’s also something profound and deeply felt in the way Susanna and Oldham begin by singing separate parts but find their voices interweaved and eventually inseparable as the song progresses. This structural device brings out the song’s theme in a way that no amount of false emoting and vocal power ever could.

This last thought brings me neatly on to what I consider the essence of Susanna’s artistry. Though her voice occasionally quivers, it is completely devoid of the usual tricks and conventions deployed to try and move an audience – it is totally without artifice. Whilst the result of this is a certain kind of coldness or austerity, it is by no means without feeling. Indeed, her version of Kiss’ ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’ remains one of the saddest, most affecting pieces of music I’ve heard in the last few years, and the versions of ‘Jailbreak’, ‘Without You’ and ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ included here come close to matching that song’s faded grandeur.