FIRST AID KIT
As obvious as it sounds, imagining something bad, or the worst, still doesn’t measure up to the real thing, which is something we don’t really learn until that worst happens to us.
As patronising as it sounds, you can tell the difference in young artists as they move from writing from the abstract about break ups, or falling in love, to coping with full-on breakup, or for that matter a genuine falling out with your sister.
First Aid Kit – Swedish-via-the-USA sisters Klara and Johanna Soderberg – have reportedly experienced both breakups and some intra-family tension in recent times and their fourth album feels a little darker, a little more bruised, a little wiser for it.
The “little” here isn’t meant to suggest insignificance in their travails but rather that the somewhat aptly titled Ruins is neither a sudden shift into darkness nor an extreme exploration of it.
Firstly, while their harmonies and melodies have often been uplifting, the tone and the blend of the voices and their preference for a kind of wistful country/folk sung in the manner of Emmylou Harris (who even when singing high tempo sounds kinda sad) means that First Aid Kit have leant sad.
Secondly, the difference this time is that rather than any florid expressions it’s more like there’s an extra edge to the lyrics and an additional layer of hurt in those songs. There’s no cheap gloom here, or easy moves, and that much is made clear from the opening two songs and the overall production of Tucker Martine.
Rebel Heart, with a trumpet voluntary in the denouement, and It’s A Shame, with some southern soul organ circling behind the voices and slightly more prominent drums, give Ruin a punchier start than you might think.
There’s a small battle going on within them, like an internal argument inside a Soderberg head, between light and heaviness. Each time the songs hint they may veer to sadness a flicker of sound or an uptick in vocals, a brisker drum or a gathering momentum, counters and reclaims the centre path. (And see it in full redemption mode late in Ruins when Hem Of Her Dress puts an Irish singalong and a Salvos band in the mix for a surprising burst of positivity inside a fire.)
It’s a feature of the album so that even when you have a song such as To Live A Life, where melancholy is prominent in the saddle – acoustic guitar picked, Klara’s voice as set to the distance as a thousand yard stare, their harmonies aching - the ride is still peppered with keyboards that sparkle and a kind of Christmas-is-here-don’t-cry tenor.
Or when, in the album’s closing track, Nothing Has To Be True, acres of space allow room for the kind of cry-to-the-moon wallowing that country music can indulge, there’s a woman-finds-god undertone which provides comfort even before the full band kicks in forcefully.
If there is a downside to the way the sisters have built this album it is that holding the full sadness in, or balancing it with optimistic sounds and tempo changes, strangely leaves you looking for the killer song that will nail the hurt.
This may be perverse but I actually wish they had indulged themselves to excess somewhere.