Susanna – Go Dig my Grave
SusannaSonata – 9 February 2018
I’ve always loved minimalism, in art, it has a long history of course, but the term is less often used when it comes to popular music. And yet the roots of popular music could justifiably be called minimalist, intentionally or not, from the mutated blues and boogie-woogie of Chuck Berry’s early Chess recordings to Alan Lomax’s field recordings.
Pioneers like Brian Eno made minimalism hip, but in an intellectual art school kind of way. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the way minimalism seems to have infiltrated Americana and folk music over the last ten years. You could say that minimalist folk has come full circle by reconnecting the music to its roots while also lending it a cache of hipness that had been missing before.
To some extent, this is of course more of an intellectual exercise than anything, but there are certain artists who really refine the concept of minimalist folk and take it to a new level.
Norwegian artist Susanna is one of those people, as demonstrated on her new album Go Dig My Grave. She’s built a career on music that’s atmospheric, hypnotic and yes, minimalist, putting her own unique spin on classic songs like Joy Divison’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” which helped to jumpstart her career.
Go Dig My Grave was recorded with Swiss baroque harp player Giovanna Pessi, accordion player Ida Hidle and folk singer and fiddle player Tuva Syvertsen. The album is quite an eclectic offering of songs picked from the traditional folk repertoire as well as from moody contemporary artists like Jeff Buckley and Joy Division. The overall effect is of minimalist folk played with tenderness, passion and restraint. The mood is sombre and grave, but also cathartic in places, like a pale wintry sun breaking through dark stormy skies.
Opener “Freight Train” is an absolutely gorgeous reworking of the classic Elisabeth Cotton folk tune with spine-tingling musical accompaniment by gently plucked harp and dark, moody accordion and fiddle. A powerful beginning to the album that made my hairs stand on end.
“Invitation to the Voyage” is a Baudelaire poem set to music by Susanna and brings to mind German chanteuse Nico at her most ethereal.
“Go Dig My Grave” is another spine-tingling exploration of boundless melancholy, as Susanna’s plaintive vocals float over an accordion grumbling low and breathy fiddle-yes, they really sound like that.
“Lilac Wine” is one of my favourite tunes of the late great Jeff Buckley. A brave choice, as it would seem that Buckley’s heart-wrenching rendition was THE definitive version, but Susanna is more than up to the task. Improbably, she manages to pull even more melancholy from this tune and make it her own, with searing vocals and eerie, otherworldly fiddle and accordion accompaniment.
“Wilderness” is probably the most startling, as the instruments seem to take on a life of their own, and the song gradually dissolves into chaos, with the sounds of train engines and strange ancient machines competing for space with Susanna’s plaintive singing. Definitely, a Velvet Underground vibe here, if the Velvets had played traditional folk instruments. This track reminds me of being a teenager discovering weird and wonderful music on forgotten frequencies on my parents’ radio.
“Perfect Day” is another bold choice, probably Lou Reed’s most beautiful song, with just barely a hint of Reed’s trademark dark sarcasm. Susanna sings over what sounds like a music box, making this ode to simple love sound like a moody lullaby. The achingly pretty accordion that comes in at the end is almost too much to take.
Go Dig my Grave is an unsettling album of almost painful beauty and an impressive exercise in restraint and understatement. Dark, moody, eclectic: a small masterpiece of sombre beauty.