The last time Susanne Sundfør was in town, two years ago and at the same venue, it was a strange affair indeed. Even before the fire alarm was jolted into action by a surfeit of smoke, Susanne had been grubbing around on the stage floor like she was looking for a contact lens. She barely spoke to the audience and wrapped the set up just eight songs in. There was certainly something rotten in the Queendom of Norway that night.
Wednesday’s performance could not have been more different. Neat and trim, shorn of her band and presenting a very simple set on piano, electronic keyboards and acoustic guitar Susanne was up for it from the very start. In good humour, stopping occasionally for a sip of tea, storytelling and clowning with the audience in that oh-so-sophisticated manner that Scandinavians have. Trying to pronounce Manchester in a Manc accent which made her sound like one of the Flowerpot Men was only bettered by her attempt to talk in the manner of ‘everyone north of London’ which turned out to be more like the Swedish chef from The Muppet Show.
The sold-out crowd was in equally good humour – she has a devoted following here – including the ubiquitous northern England-based Norwegian contingent which made its presence known as usual. They were treated to a set that comprised mainly (seven of 12) songs from her fifth studio album, Music for People in Trouble, which is a throwback to the simpler melodies and arrangements of earlier albums and which stands in stark contrast to the synth-pop grandiosity of its predecessor, Ten Love Songs. Unfortunately, playing a solo set does mean that you lose some of the album nuances, such as the sultry sax of ‘Good Luck, Bad Luck’ or the eerie Anna von Hausswolff-reminiscent keyboard effects that bring ‘The Sounds of War’ to an end.
Several of her songs contain religious references, such as Reincarnation in particular on this latest album, to the Devil and to atheistic tendencies. Sundfør is famously undecided where religion is concerned and it appears on occasion that she’s working through her options as she goes along. But those electronic touches haven’t been overlooked entirely as on the opening song Mantra, which had an electro keyboard backing throughout rather than the acoustic guitar of the album version.
Susanne Sundfør’s voice is a fascinating study in itself. As sweet as it is she doesn’t have the broadest range and an ever-so-slightly nasal drone could be irritating if it appeared any more frequently than it does. But it hooks you all the same and the fact that her sound man conjured up the best vocal reproduction I’ve ever heard in this venue was a bonus. At times it was as if she was singing to you personally, in your living room.
A cover version was included, namely Paul Simon’s American Tune, a song about immigration that might easily be bracketed with a Meryl Streep harangue at the Oscars. As a diversion from the main event it served a purpose but an artist at this level shouldn’t really need to do it at all. Not when she has five album’s worth of her own material to choose from.
Every song was received enthusiastically by the audience and rightly so but even so the two most powerful ones came from earlier albums, namely ‘Trust Me’, from Ten Love Songs which ended the main set, and ‘White Foxes’, from The Silicone Veil, which terminated the encore. As good as Music for People in Trouble is; it would have been nice to hear another one or two of the older songs performed as well and you sensed the crowd expected it. Notable for its absence yet again, for example, was ‘The Brothel’, which is sublime when performed with a string quartet, but which is still pretty darn good if she’s simply alone at the piano. It had been played at each of the two opening shows of her UK tour, which makes it all the more disappointing that it didn’t make an appearance in Manchester.
That minor criticism should not detract though from what was a highly professional and entertaining 60 minutes from an artist who remains at the very top of her game.