What are you expecting when you reach for a first aid kit? Band-aids? Neosporin? For fans of the Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit, it’s nostalgic guitar and unashamed, heart-wrenching lyricism when they press play.
Since their debut EP in 2008, First Aid Kit has been reliable, delivering pastoral harmonies and quietly devastating lyrics with striking consistency. Sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg mastered that running-through-an-open-field feeling, even as their production got sharper and their audience grew. Their latest release, Palomino, searches for a more upbeat tone after the heartache and loneliness of 2018’s Ruins, delving into themes of freedom, joy and emotional connection. But in the pursuit of happiness, they lose that intense, out-of-control dreaminess that once set them apart.
The anthemic opening track “Out of My Head” unquestionably sets the tone: Klara is “wandering / Through the rooms of (her) mind,” begging to be set free from her own anxiety. “Ready to Run” builds on these themes of escape, reflecting on a past relationship and concluding, “Perhaps I’ll feel like this forever / I’m always ready to run,” while its swingy country sound and pleasant piano signal to the listener that she’s made peace with this instinct. On “Angel,” Klara learns to let go, asking “What has that fear ever done for me / But hold me back?”
These first three tracks ease us comfortably into the album — the passionate vocals and folksy guitar harken back to their past work, while quick drum beats and horns hidden in the instrumentals lend the songs a poppier feel, letting us know that something new is on its way.
Sure enough, “Turning Onto You” swiftly follows, its groovy electric guitar riffs and relaxed percussion sounding more like Neil Young than anything First Aid Kit has made before. Though they’re no stranger to the occasional Americana reference, they’ve never committed to it quite like this. Over their quintessential finger-picking on “Wild Horses II,” the lyrics pay tribute to Gram Parsons and The Rolling Stones, with melodies that would belong on a Leonard Cohen song, who they’ve previously cited as an important influence. Chronicling the specifics of a road trip through the American West (a motel with a bible in the drawer, flirting with the waitress at a roadside diner), the song ends with a breakup, but its gradual crescendo is markedly cheerful.
This disparity between upbeat music and lyrical content that’s, admittedly, kind of depressing, is a theme throughout the album. Lyrics like “I’ve been dragging your ghost around” over the dazzling early 2000s guitar riffs of “Palomino” and “Thought I’d be enough if I was someone else” on “A Feeling That Never Came” show the duo hasn’t strayed too far from the poetic bleakness of Ruins. But without the heart that usually supports their instrumentals, these emotional confessions fall flat, coming off as cliché rather than honest.
Their new sound staunchly strives for optimism. On “A Feeling That Never Came,” they experiment with jumpy outbursts and breathless, rhythmic melodic lines in a style reminiscent of Jack Antonoff. Along with the similarly pop-infused “Fallen Snow,” which tries out funky strings and vocals that stay put rather than their usual soaring harmonies, Palomino sees First Aid Kit dipping their toe into some completely new waters. They don’t push their luck, though, returning to that free-flowing folk they’re known for on mellower tracks like “29 Palms Highway” and “The Last One.” Closing the album, the titular “Palomino” finds peace in independence, declaring, “Where you go my love goes, darling / I can hear the unknown road calling.”
Pleasant is a perfect way to describe it. But a quick search on Thesaurus.com tells me that synonyms for pleasant are bland, mild and polite, which are perhaps even better ways to describe it. Missing from the album is the palpable emotional intensity on which First Aid Kit built their foundations, that thick ugliness of heartbreak that listeners have come to expect. Notably, Palomino lacks a climax, stopping short rather than diving into the depths where First Aid Kit’s genius usually lies. With lines like, “When I was younger / Ah, the path, it seemed so clear,” in “29 Palms Highway” and “All my thoughts, they tend to wander” in “Fallen Snow,” Palomino falls back on tired themes without adding anything original. First Aid Kit’s talent for catchy folk melodies and well-crafted instrumentals is on full display, but the brightness of their new sound lets their lyricism flounder, leaving the listener dissatisfied with an emotional experience that’s more phony than profound.
Daily Arts Writer Nina Smith can be reached at email@example.com.