ALBUM REVIEW: Susanna – ‘Baudelaire & Piano’: recasting the poet in solo dusk

TWO things to note from the off about the Norwegian chanteuse fatale born Susanna Karolina Wallumrød: firstly, she is both a deep appreciator and fashioner of the arts – no throwaway, careerist pop remixes her, no dalliance with song for song’s sake. Music, and art more broadly, is far too important  business for frippery; life brings enough of that, and we need serious forging of melodic catharsis, reflection of the joy and pain of how we live.

Secondly, she adores to work with and reinterpret others on many levels: witness her ice-rimed and jaw-dropping recasting of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” from her Susanna and the Magical Orchestra album List Of Lights And Buoys, back in 2004. 2018’s Go Dig My Grave was a full set of covers recast into Susanna’s otherworld, gathering together traditional ballads; Joy Division; even Lou Reed’s much-worn Perfect Day, for adept and noir reforgings, emerging anew. There’s a Baudelaire track within, too; a seed sown to flower later?

And now, with Baudelaire & Piano, which she is releasing on her own SusannaSonata imprint this coming Friday, September 11th, she’s taking the work of the 19th-century French poet who lived on a knife-edge of high feeling, unable, if you read his poems, to escape the obverse of sadness even in joy; and more specifically she has taken poems from his most famous work, The Flowers Of Evil.

She poses the question with this work: what would Baudelaire, who possessed perhaps a skin too few, who danced with opium to his detriment, who took his anger at the world to the streets, make of how 2020 is as a place to live?

It’s straight into that combined word of hers and his with “The Dancing Snake”, a romantic ode cast in shade with Baudelaire’s potent imagery, set sail in the strength and vivacity of Susanna’s voice. The eyes of the lover are like “two cold and precious jewels where gold and iron blend”; their body stretches, like a slim ship. She climbs to a falsetto with that final, repeating line: “Like stardust in my heart”. Hear this track via our embed down at the end.

“Longing For Nothingness” almost luxuriates in its dark yearn for it all to be over. “Have no shame; lie down … minute by minute, time engulfs my soul,” she incants, simultaneously strong and lost.

“The Enemy” – seemingly, in your writer’s reading, life itself – becomes a gracious glide in the twin trajectory of Susanna’s autumnal piano arpeggio and her free-flying vocal silk. “Burial” is none more grave, if you’ll escape the pun. Susanna lifts it from the sternest chords to free up a folky soar, with acres of paused nuance. Like fellow Norwegian singer Siv Jakobsen, she is fully aware of how much power she possesses in her voice and uses it sparingly to really strike home – as she does here in that ending chant, “Buh-buh-buh-burial”, ringing with the exactness of its pitching.

“Meditation” thankfully eases the height of emotional pitching just a notch, gives us time to inhale. It’s a softer shore wherein Susanna yearns, her voice fluid and seeking, teasing out new melodic intervals and responses; one where “dusky air falls”. Hear the power as she lofts into the wordless song beyond lexical iteration and hold your heart tight.

We stay at an easier vibrancy for “Obsession”: in which the poet rails against the forest, the ocean, even the night – “How you would please me, night, without those stars”. Like “Meditation” it finds its musical life as a vocally expansive, Northern European folk melody. I’d dearly love to hear the a cappella of this, I really would. 

There’s a change of pace for “The Vampire”: here Susanna is underpinned by the steel of a staccato, bluesy, augmented chord progression that brings to mind the Alice Coltrane of “P’tah, The El Daoud”. “I begged the sword to come swiftly,” she sings; “Your kisses would give new life to a corpse,” the sword retorts as the track falls away to silence in a second.

“The Harmony Of Evening” is, by Baudelaire’s standards, on the side of the light; he is aware of the potency of the battle of the living against the eternal dark, afraid but at least comforted. “Each flower diffuse fragrance like a censer / Perfumes and sounds swirl, in the evening air”. You know by now Susanna could take any song, any song in the world, and solarise it through her lense to take up a whole new mirror life. By contrast, “A Pagan Prayer” is high up the keyboard, shimmers in concurrence with her voice like the gathering stream at the melt-edge of the last snow.

The ten-song set wraps in the rising swell of “The Ghost”; in the morning, she cautions, “ … you will wake to find an empty place, though when night comes, I shall be there, I shall be there, I shall be there …”; the piano’s last decaying resonance trails into the dark.

Baudelaire & Piano was recorded at Atlantis Studio, Stockholm, our auteur alone at the piano. “I wanted to approach this material in an almost dogmatic way,” she has said of the fashioning of this poems-made-song; “to present [them] in a naked, stripped-down form. 

“These poems have so many layers and contain such rich expanding emotions to me.

“These words have the power to transport and transcend me, to new places, other places, places I didn’t know of before.”

Approach Baudelaire & Piano not with caution, but with mindfulness of a serious and deep work. The best setting would be, I think, alone with your lover at or near an autumnal dusk; place the needle on the wax in the dying rays, ensure the lights aren’t on, and let Susanna guide you with a dark grace across that diurnal divide into the evening, the shadows falling as she sings. Potent.

Susanna’s Baudelaire & Piano will be released on her own SusannaSonata imprint on cassette, CD, limited clear and traditional black vinyl formats this Friday, September 11th: to order a copy, click through here.

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