First Aid Kit show minor growth in rock solid album
The pleasures of First Aid Kit’s Ruins are conventional, but that quality does not negate their effectiveness. The Swedish sisters Söderberg, Klara and Johanna, are not stretching far with their fourth release but if you can be satisfied with a further cementing of their pop-cum-country expertise, there is a lot to enjoy here.
With a new producer (Tucker Martine) and a crack guest list (R.E.M’s Peter Buck, Midlake’s McKenzie Smith, Wilco’s Glenn Kotche), First Aid Kit assembled an impressive creative nucleus for this outing, their first since 2014 (the longest break in their recording career). Ruins strips away some of the glossy veneer of the sisters’ previous two releases, favoring a subtly earthier, pared down sound that suits them well. And in spite of the changing line-up of collaborators, their artistic identities remain clearly and forcefully intact throughout.
First Aid Kit draw from all corners of Americana, uniting the diverse sounds that inspire them with their taut, gripping harmonies and lyrical openheartedness and sophistication. “It’s A Shame” rumbles with pulsating 50s drums, the rueful “Fireworks” evokes classic heartache balladry, and “Postcard” embraces pure country – you can hear their precedents. But the Söderbergs are resistant to genre confinement and unafraid to reach across realms in even their most superficially derivative songs. “Hem of Her Dress” uses a resigned yet determined melody seemingly derived from a sailor’s shanty to fashion an explosive, pure-pop choral climax that is bound to be a staple of upcoming performances. The lullabylike “To Live a Life” has a cinematic aura of magic and soothing finality that belies its place mid-record, but it still lands as one of the standout tracks.
Lyrically, First Aid Kit covers love, disappointment and disillusionment unblinkingly on Ruins with endearing earnestness and a redemptive, quietly conciliatory will to carry on. Even if the relationships depicted inflict lasting pain, they do not define the singers. “Ruins / All the things we built assured that they would last / Ending months, ticket stubs and written notes and photographs / Where are you in here, somewhere I cannot go / I’m sorry, I am / But I don’t take it back,” goes the title track, mournfully but assuredly. You want to applaud when they sing, “So I am incomplete / So loud and so discrete/ You tried to pinpoint me, I guess that was your mistake,” to a former partner on “Hem of Her Dress.” There are naturally moments of vulnerability as well but the overall tone the Söderbergs strike is one that bears the past but doesn’t stop moving forward.
And that’s Ruins. It works in many ways on many fronts, occasionally spectacularly, and though it feels like the band is treading water, they are higher above its surface than they have yet been. It’s not a giant leap for mankind, not a giant leap even for First Aid Kit, but unquestionably a worthy entry into their canon and damn near irresistible.