I was completely caught off guard when, after impulsively purchasing it on the basis of a glowing description displayed in a local record store, I first heard List of Lights and Buoys, the debut album from Susanna and the Magical Orchestra. Coming from a childhood full of positive exposure to powerful yet innately fragile female songwriters like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, I found myself mesmerized by the captivating voice of Susanna Karolina Wallumrød. Whether pleading over the dulcimer melody on an impassioned version of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" or elegantly dazzling on the breathtaking "Turn The Pages," I felt disoriented and enamored all at once, like experiencing love for the first time all over again. Last year's follow-up to that untouchable masterpiece, unfortunately, didn't tug at the old heartstrings in the same way, largely a complication arising from its experimental karaoke-like approach. Listening to Susanna siren her way through well worn Depeche Mode and Joy Division singles, I longed for a return to the sheer honesty of the project's original material. Melody Mountain seemed almost like a diversion, a parochially cruel one at that, which makes the empyreal Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos all the more amazing.
For this album, her first solo showcase, Susanna doesn't veer very far from the restrained expressions of melancholia prevalent in her work with Morten Qvenild in the Magical Orchestra. While still lean on instrumentation, the production, however, percolates potent warmth in contrast with Qvenvild's otherwise alien tendencies and frequencies. Though we are left to wonder what this alluring Nordic goddess would sound like with a fuller band behind her, her collaborators do an excellent job of adding their touches to her mesmeric compositions, to which she also contributes piano and guitar. Devoted Rune Grammofon and Norwegian music aficionados will recognize many of these guests, which include album producer Helge Sten of Deathprod and Supersilent acclaim, Ola Fløttum of The White Birch, and Scorch Trio bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, as well as Susanna's own jazz pianist brother, Christian. Qvenild also lends his hand to two of the tracks here, but as with most singer-songwriter albums, the session musicians deferentially and by default take a figuratively diminished role, with the vocalist serving as proverbial focal point gloriously exposed to the judging and often jaded ears of hopeful listeners and curious critics alike.
Susanna has nothing to worry about from that latter category, as only the coldest of cold hearts could resist her pensive and, at times, plaintive songs of love and distance. Though a reasonable criticism of an overshadowing uniformity could be made, such analysis seems pedagogically crass in the face of such wistful soul-baring cuts as "Intruder" and the penetrating "Hangout." Perhaps dangerously close to the edge, Susanna never allows her voice to tremble on the precious "Lily," a moving tribute that extends the high end of her already admirable vocal range. "Better Days" adds a bit of country twang to the mix, courtesy of Bigbang's Øystein Greni, while the agonizing and emotional piano tune "For You" could just as easily been shouted instead of sung. "People Living," the closest thing to a proper single found here, features deep, plucked guitar in its chorus of sparse chords and her constant questioning.
With the three albums under her belt, any derisive or complimentary comparisons to that eccentric Scandinavian Bjork should have all but evaporated, as Susanna has categorically transcended such lazy posturing and blossomed into a full-fledged artist in her own right, unmatched by the current crop of radio-ready sensitive gals. Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos surely puts that nonsense to rest with each consecutive intoxicating nuance of these soft lullabies for the disquiet soul.