Pretending To See The Future #14

by Oliver Rose

Ten Love Songs – Susanne Sundfør (2015)

Last week’s episode studied Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s 1980 debut – one of my favourite, early synth-pop records. Arguably, I’ve since mused, “early synth-pop” is somewhat late in the day for the development of electronic music generally. Kraftwerk put out Autobahn in 1974 – before then even, came Wendy Carlos’ 1968 Switched-on Bach, a bizarre record comprising re-renderings of J. S. Bach’s most famous compositions using some of the first commercially available monophonic synthesisers. In the end, I concluded it was too difficult to pinpoint any tangible start to popular electronic music; that an examination of any proposed “genesis-record” could be too easily undermined by a conflict of definitions. What was the first hit synthesiser record? What was the first true synthesiser record? Too many questions, and with an introductory instalment on early OMD leading the way…

So instead, I cast my ear forward in time. I thought to myself, what was the last excellent synth-pop record released? The answer to this question was, conversely, quite easy – mainly because it’s a critical fact: a fact called Ten Love Songs.

Susanne Sundfør first came to my attention for a collaboration with Röyksopp in 2013 on Ice Machine, a Depeche Mode cover featured on the latter’s LateNightTales compilation. Not only did her razor-sharp, coldwave intonation grab me, but so did her references – Ice Machine? A mere b-side from Depeche Mode’s early days with pop-meister Vince Clarke? How wonderfully perverse a choice of cover for a modern electronic act. Maybe it was all Röyksopp’s idea; perhaps I figure a little too much into Susanne’s own complicity here. Regardless, it’s an excellent cover, and, as a little investigatory work will reveal, a perfectly fitting tether to the Norwegian songstress’ own oeuvre, even if she is but its humble vocalist.

In late November 2014, Sundfør released Ten Love Song’s lead single, Fade Away, a throbbing electro-pop track with massive percussion, chilly lyrics and an all-too-rare-nowadays keyboard solo (complete with kitsch, introductory bell). From the start, it’s a fervently Scandinavian thing, expertly blending vitamin-deficient gloom with glitchy euphoria. It was my favourite song of the year from the moment I heard it and the two-month-plus wait for a whole album come February seemed endless. Its enticing tenacity as a single was topped only by the acuteness of its placing on the eventual album as a merge with the equally raucous Accelerate. This last track was cleverly engineered to flow directly into the single mix of Fade Away eschewing the annoying, gapless blends often employed in album mixing, Sundfør instead created a new context for the song’s beginning, rather than a new structure, which I felt was a neat reward for anyone who bought the LP on the strength of the song.

The rest of the record is just as rewarding to sit down and spend time with. Opener Darlings, performed on what sounds like a harmonium, harks back to the folksy roots of Sundfør’s eponymous debut, executing a slick balancing act between pop-friendly discordance and lyrical profundity, this second item being of particular interest – written and sung in the performer’s second language, its enormously impressive that the lyrics on this album are as nuanced and touching as they are, achieving a mastery of emotion that ought to make most native speakers of English in pop music ashamed. After tracks two and three (the Accelerate/Fade Away medley), we reach Silencer, whereupon acoustic guitars and airy soprano melodies tease us, snaking around a sweet chord progression, before they are shrouded quickly in glimmering, atmospheric synthesiser bliss. This soundscape is a marvellous thing, perfectly inferring the freezing geography of Scandinavia by way of its sophisticated, electronic haze – a gorgeously menacing weight providing the momentum on an anxious carousel. Is this record beautifully light, or beautifully dark? One of Ten Love Songs’ enduring appeals, listen after listen, it its ability to throw the semantics and etymology of light and dark, frequently into question. Kamikazee follows suit – with an anthemic rhythm aimed explicitly at club and radio play, it’s very catchy. Even then, it should be said that it opens with forty-or-so seconds of Fender Rhodes piano and organ imitation – while its choruses speak pop volumes, there’s a humble melancholy to the quieter verses, showcasing a songwriter whose talents lie in exercising a clever pop amalgam in place of plain pop – Sundfør’s seemingly absurd combination of the baroque and futuristic is strangely successful.

I’ll take a moment aside now for the album’s centrepiece. Comprising ten glorious minutes of classical variation, heart-wrenching poetry and bright, voltaic textures, Memorial is a fascinating exercise in palatability, its composite parts pulling together to form a pop megalith whose wider exposure is limited only by its commercially unfavourable size. It doesn’t feel like a sixth of an hour passing when you listen; the music never drags. The dynamism of this piece is superb; its subsequently unexpected reprisal of form in the end stages is incredibly satisfying. If you listen to none of the other tracks from this album, indulge in Memorial. It’s a clear indicator of our sorry state of affairs that an album with deep-cuts this artful made a miserable number 78 in the UK charts, and for only one week. By comparison, Ten Love Songs has spent a mammoth fifty-three weeks in the Norweigian charts, peaking at number one on three occasions. Go where you art takes you is what I say…

After the extravagant Memorial then, comes second single Delirious, beginning with a spacey, portamento build-up that takes over half a minute to reach its grisly, discordant summit. Suddenly, with an electronic explosion around the 1:20 mark, your headphones explode and sound swells to the size of the sun, drowning your entirety with the viscosity of the most excellent squelch going. Thick, wet synthesisers clobber madly before another, miniature reverse-crescendo section, topped off with glacé cherry harmonies in the final quarter (for extra sweetness). Another banger-standard pop track follows in the form of Slowly, employing a series of great key changes to keep the record sounding fresh in its autumn minutes. The preceding Trust Me acts like a bookend to opener Darlings – performed entirely on organ-esque keys, it presents itself as track one’s slightly elongated, slightly affected döppelganger, a clever move to cement the appeal of the record’s entirety. Closer Insects is the only track here you might possibly label a misstep’– it seems a tad inappropriate after its emotive predecessor, though as ever, the melodies are water-tight and the textures are fascinatingly sharp, leading the way towards what ends up being the record’s most aggressive coda.

It seemed unfortunate in retrospect, that my two favourite records of last year dropped within days of each other – this LP’s coincidentally-timed counterpart was Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. After that week in February, I was left wondering if 2015 had anything left to offer, and whilst it did, nothing as exciting as either of those two records found its way onto my path.

Ten Love Songs is, to me at least, an affirming record. An objective analysis will leave you celebrating its high quality production, cerebral lyrics and frankly exquisite vocal work – it is a technical marvel of the human capacity for music-making as much as it is one of the electronic instruments that define it. However, a contextual, and, for me, more personal reading into this work, leaves me considering the moody, analogue influences that birthed its brooding textures and subject-matter. Perhaps this album’s lack of success in the country responsible for the majority of its stylistic models, is its inescapable tailoring to those same musicians and their now-niche audiences. It’s still somewhat inexplicable then, as to why Ten Love Songs has performed so well in Sundfør’s native Norway – but in a cute, almost perverse way, the UK’s indifference has provided the artist with what was undoubtedly her most desired outcome; celebration in music’s catacombs, where her heroes, and now she herself, might reign supreme.