Consider the deep-seated intrigues and impossible candour of Susanne Sundfør‘s Ten Love Songs. Brace yourself for yet another draught of its dark romanticism. For Ten Love Songs is an inarguably romantic undertaking: a work that, as it chips away at the predictable and unstoppable advances of love and loss, or celebrates the breathless heat of the moment, never dares lose faith in the stupidly infinite possibilities of the thing we hate and love in equal measure. Find yourself overcome.
Sundfør’s fifth (and best) album is an intimate and pointed dialogue that takes place between its creator and its key protagonist(s.) When she sings “You say that I’m delirious, but I’m not the one holding the gun…” on ‘Delirious’, there’s the fearless heart of its unblinking commentary. And so, even though it poses as a relatable work and fools you into thinking you’ve inhabited oh so many of its unsettling dramas, it lives and breathes without you. It’s not, ultimately, a true confessional. It’s an enactment.
Her slightly skewed positioning brings a challenge to live performance where nuanced lyrics are sure to flop. Good job, therefore, that Ten Love Songs – her first album to make significant impact outside of her native Norway and surrounding region – is also a barrage of melody and advanced dance pop. So while its elegant mood pieces (the opening swoon of ‘Darlings’; the ten minute ode to heartbreak ‘Memorial’) bloom amidst strings and classical figures (again, for ‘romantic’, read, rather than dreamy wide-eyed wonder, um, Rachmaninov) a battery of rock solid bangers keep the beat.
This genuinely enigmatic figure making it to the UK for her first tour proper and stepping into little more than a bar to play her songs, is thrillingly odd, vaguely surreal. But let’s get this out of the way first: she plays for barely three quarters of an hour. Nine (love) songs. At least three diamonds – three pumping set-elevators – short of earlier shows, including (by all accounts) a triumphant performance at London’s Koko the previous night. And it impacts massively: there’s a genuine, communal befuddlement when she announces ‘The Silicone Veil’ as “our last song.” A single encore of ‘It’s All Gone Tomorrow’ – and Manchester throws itself at its jittery, overwhelming pummel – and we’re done. Houselights. Confusion. Frowns across the room.
‘Delirious’ is missing, as are ‘White Foxes’ and ‘Rome’ from the recent vault. The show clatters to a halt. A fire alarm part way through third song ‘Tell Me’ could well have properly derailed a lesser performer but Sundfør and her excellent three piece appear to laugh it off, and there’s a real roar of affirmation when the alarm is silenced and they return after ten minutes.
Despite the distractions, pretty much everything bites: an opening ‘Lullaby’ with Sundfør on her knees, her face inches from the floor as she coaxes shifting sounds from her KAOSS Pad, seemingly unaware of the crowd; the brutal trance shake of ‘Acclerate’. “Take it off, hit me hard like a drum / This must be paradise cos I am numb.” She’s a physical and confrontational presence. As with much of Ten Love Songs, that thin line between love and hate shrinks here to mere microns. Even minus her usual touring six piece, the sound is enveloping. ‘Memorial’ takes on new shades in a stripped-down guise, Sundfør playing it almost acoustically as she picks up guitar for the only time tonight.
‘The Silicone Veil’, drummer Gard Nilssen leading a series of rat-a-tat false endings as strobes disorient, is a deathly battery. As on the album, ‘Accelerate’ morphs into ‘Fade Away’ – Nilssen bridging the gap with a pummeling workout. The latter, not quite the slice of ABBA-esque euro pop it first seems, plays with scratchy, abrasive beats. To make Ten Love Songs properly mainstream-friendly, you’d need to de-burr it.
The atmosphere edges towards charged. Suddenly, songs are greeted with extended applause and we’re going somewhere. “You guys all OK?” Oh yeah. We’re OK. We’re all over it. Release ‘Delirious’ now and we’re in orbit. But…nine songs. And this strange communion collapses with a whimper when glories beckoned. “Have you ever been heartbroken?” Well, now that you ask, Susanne, a little bit, yeah. Just a little bit.