Why an essay of context is required for Susanna’s Go Dig My Grave

Go Dig My GraveContext is an important beast. Listen to Susanna Wallumrød's new album Go Dig My Grave without it, and the Norwegian - who this time is joined by Swiss baroque harp player Giovanna Pessi, accordion player Ida Hidle, and fiddle player and folk singer Tuva Syvertsen - will paint a very strange and disjointed picture. But know the artistry behind these 10 tracks, and they turn into beautifully crafted, individual moments in time and memory.

To cut to the chase, Go Dig My Grave is a covers album. The terminology has deftly been avoided in all promotion, which favours words like 'reworked' and 'revisited'. It's an odd attempt to disguise the record's true identity, especially as some of the original performers were actual, real-life recording artists and not historical figures whose names have been lost to time and folk tradition.

Wallumrød is well known for covering other people's work - she's previously tackled AC/DC, Dolly Parton, Thin Lizzy and Leonard Cohen - but in 2018 she's taking her obsession to another level. Drawing on the spacious electronic folk of her debut album Triangle, released in 2016, as well as tricks of the trade she's no doubt acquired while working with Jenny Hval and Bonnie Prince Billy, she transforms the songs she's selected for this album to suit her own musical agenda.

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It's likely most listeners will only recognise Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" without being prompted. That's partly because other songwriters featured on Dig Your Own Grave are willfully obscure or have been dead for more than two decades, but it's also because Susanna and company utterly transform each track. "Freight Train" is a cover of American rhythm and blues artist Elizabeth Cotten's 1979 song, turned into a ghostly opener; the titular "Go Dig My Grave" is a traditional folk song best attributed to the 'Mother of Folk' Jean Ritchie, who was usually accompanied by the fast-paced, finger-plucking of folk guitarist Doc Watson. Susanna draws it out and slows it down, injecting a haunting, modern twist. Elsewhere songs made famous by Rex Titter, Woody Guthrie, and Elkie Brooks also feature and are equally well converted.

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However, the cohesive structure required to successfully pull off a cover album isn't realised on Go Dig My Grave. At one minute it sounds like the disregarded remains of a cowboy (or girl) alcoholic who died c. 1890; the next it comes crashing through sound barriers with a piercing synth; then it rounds off with a 90s pop song. When you know that each of the 10 tracks is a cover, this at least makes sense. However, even when you get your teeth into the liner notes, Go Dig My Grave is far too diverse and unstructured to be an enjoyable listen. This is the major problem and unfortunately overwhelming problem: you shouldn't have to read an essay on music to understand how to approach a record, and it shouldn't be a chore.

The skill Susanna demonstrates on individual tracks is sadly not enough to save Go Dig My Grave. Many musicians have produced whole back catalogues of cohesive and well-loved covers, but they've harboured a running theme or style of music. Susanna's approach is scattergun, and there's no obvious reason for the selection of songs she's chosen, nor is there a standout methodology or narrative. The delivery is impeccable; the selection of songs is unique and interesting, but overall Go Dig My Grave is the audible equivalent of poking around in the dark.

Release: 9th February 2018, SusannaSonata
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