Release date: Friday, September 11th 2020 via SusannaSonata.
French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was a literary enfant terrible who had issues with authority, his finances and his health. A syphilitic drug-addict, he produced just one collection of poetry in his short life, so how has he become such a cultural touchstone for artists in the 150 years since his death? His art has influenced everyone from Debussy to The Doors, Scott Walker to Patti Smith and even Mick Jagger claimed that “Sympathy for the Devil” came from “my Baudelaire books”.
The latest to take inspiration from his words is Norwegian chanteuse Susanna Wallumrød, who uses his decadent verse as the lyrical backbone of her new release Baudelaire & Piano. Susanna is no stranger to the cover version. Her 2004 album List of Lights and Buoys featured a stunning reimagining of Dolly Parton’s Jolene and her 2018 release Go Dog My Grave showcased her ethereal noir-tinged sound to interpret songs by artists like Lou Reed and Joy Division.
Now she takes the work of this 19th-century poet and recasts his struggle with debauchery and goodness, sin and godliness for a modern audience. The ten texts she selects from his most famous work The Flowers of Evil feature God and the devil, vampires, wolves, lust and death and all explore the inherent darkness that exists at the heart of beauty. In Susanna’s haunting arrangements and sustained performance, Baudelaire has found a perfect conduit for the 21st century.
The sparse instrumentation of just vocal and piano puts most of the responsibility on Wallumrød’s voice and she delivers. Her vocals here are crystal clear in their icy tone with a previously undiscovered power that she uses when she needs it.
The opening track The Dancing Snake is an intense romantic ode that makes the most of Baudelaire’s overwrought imagery and wouldn’t sound out of place on a PJ Harvey album. Burial introduces an underlying sense of danger as Susanna’s voice cracks with emotion against a background of heavy, staccato chords. Her ethereal vocals are highlighted on Meditation and Obsession as they intimately float over softly pulsing arpeggios and her whistling on Longing for Nothingness surprises by initially sounding like another instrument.
Dig deeper – past the initial atmospheric chamber gloom – and flashes of real brilliance emerge from the album’s claustrophobic pared-back bedrock. The Vampire opens with echoes of early Tori Amos, its pounding sharp chords giving way to one of the strongest vocal performances of the album. The menace of the lower registers echo as she tells her lover ‘your kisses would give new life to a corpse’ and the overall effect here makes you wish she would record a follow-up album of Jacques Brel songs.
On A Pagan’s Prayer, crystalline chords and high-pitched singing create a hauntingly strange beauty, on a song that is as close to a mainstream pop number as Susanna is willing to give.
The album closes with The Ghost, a wistful and haunting song that fades out with a promise that, in the night, ‘I shall be there, I shall be there…’
Like much of Baudelaire’s work, Susanna’s music has often explored the contradiction between the beauty of the world and the meaningless nature of existence and, as such, the pair are a perfect fit. She has framed the lyrics beautifully, creating a striking consistency of mood, without succumbing to sameness. The simple arrangement of piano and voice allow the poems to luxuriate in a languorous, other-worldly realm that is at once comforting and disquieting in equal measure.
The clear conceptual anchor at the heart of Baudelaire & Piano allows Susanna to explore the conflicts at the heart of human nature and in it she has created a work of strange and disarming beauty, which feels like the perfect antidote for the madness of 2020.
1. The Dancing Snake
2. Longing For Nothingness
3. The Enemy
7. The Vampire
8. The Harmony Of Evening
9. A Pagan’s Prayer