Susanna / Susanna & the Brotherhood of Our Lady

Garden of Earthly Delights

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On albums such as Flower of Evil and Go Dig My Grave, Susanna has proven herself a gifted interpreter of works by artists ranging from Henry Purcell to Lou Reed. With Garden of Earthly Delights, she draws inspiration from an entirely different kind of artist: Hieronymus Bosch, the Dutch painter and draftsman whose work -- particularly the triptych altarpiece that is this album's namesake -- has fascinated viewers for centuries. While Susanna's 13th album is not a literal interpretation of The Garden of Earthly Delights, the painting's mysterious mix of innocence, sensuality, and darkness reminded her of the complexities of life in the late 2010s and spurred her to create a richly symbolic world of her own. Paradise and perdition overlap on these songs, creating double and triple meanings at almost every turn. On "Ecstacy X," Susanna's honeyed vocals promises pleasure, but the distorted electronics surrounding them suggest the opposite, and the heavy breathing that closes the track could be orgasmic, demonic, or both. At the center of the album's ambiguity is Susanna herself; the smooth beauty of her voice is remarkably versatile, evoking the angelic, the sensual, or the infernal -- or any combination of the three -- as needed. She sings with a poignant purity on Delights' most innocent-seeming pieces, such as "Ship of Fools" and the breathtaking "Beautiful Life." When she utters "ecstasy might be achievable" on "Ecstasy," the seduction disintegrates almost before it can leave her lips thanks to the stygian noise that longtime partner Helge Sten saturates the track with (Sten's textures also add fascinating depth to "Exterior"'s primordial mystery and cast a looming shadow over "Wayfarer"). As the album nears its end, her voice takes on a careworn grit as she stares down eternal damnation and divine retribution on "River to Hell" and "Gathering of Birds." Susanna's songwriting on Garden of Earthly Delights is just as compelling, spanning the Julia Holter-esque highbrow pop of "City of Hope" to "Gluttony and Lust," a beautifully structured track where humankind's impulses grow more corrupted with each verse. Her all-female backing band, the Brotherhood of Our Lady (named for the religious society of which Bosch was a member), shines especially brightly on "Wilderness," where their voices join Susanna's while she takes on the guise of a creator demanding fealty, and on the jazzy fable "Death and the Miser," where Susanna sings "the demons keep riding on the breath of our times" -- a lyric as apt for her time as well as Bosch's. Garden of Earthly Delights' wild spiritual journey is a potent reminder of her skill at bridging the past and present with frequently dazzling results.

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