“David died yesterday.”

This is the opening declaration of First Aid Kit’s single “Strange Beauty.” 

Whispered in soft, lilting undertones, as if a word spoken too harshly will break it, the opening of the song lulls the listener into hypnosis. The world keeps turning, the song keeps playing and First Aid Kit keeps singing. Then the dam breaks and reality crashes through –– “It’s left me gasping at the wheel.” One question lingers in the turbulence: “Oh, how can I explain the colossal loss I feel?” A line that hangs all at once heavy as a stone and light as a feather, suspended perpetually in the intangible cavern of song. It is only in the second verse that reality sets in –– Death has finally come to call. A parallel to the numbing shock of mourning, First Aid Kit’s “Strange Beauty” is a heart-breaking, morbid tribute to loss.

The mysterious “David” whom First Aid Kit mourns in “Strange Beauty” and “Random Rules” is late musician David Berman, who passed away in August of 2019.

“I think a lot of people were as shocked as I was upon hearing the news of David Berman’s passing,” Klara Söderberg, one of the Söderberg sisters, noted in a public statement. “It didn’t seem real. It left me completely devastated. So I wrote the song ‘Strange Beauty’ to try to make sense of my feelings.”

There is something that rings fresh and raw in the crooning of First Aid Kit’s songs; something that, months later, still wears that stain of mourning. 

The two-track release functions as its own call and response. “Random Rules,” a cover from Berman’s band Silver Jews, is honest and vulnerable, a tribute to Berman’s memory. Where “Random Rules” looks for comfort in the past, “Strange Beauty” tackles the bleakness of the present and future. While each song can stand comfortably on its own, it feels like a betrayal to indulge in the grief of “Strange Beauty” in divorce with the heartfelt celebration of “Random Rules.”

“In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection,” First Aid Kit echoes in the opening lines of “Random Rules.” There is something painful, aching, in the chorus of “Strange Beauty”: “And when you are gone, the world it moves on / But it’s lost its strange beauty,” for the absence of Bernam’s self-proclaimed “perfection” has dulled the colors of the world –– at least, in the eyes of First Aid Kit.

But why do I feel the urge to return to the grim, rainy day of “Strange Beauty”? In part, it is the lingering resonance of grief, mourning and infantile blindness that permeates the song, and which strikes the heart so thoroughly. It is hard to forget the aching rhetoric of the Söderberg sisters. More so, it is the lack of acknowledgement for the track’s novelty that drives me to write about this single. The coverage of First Aid Kit’s tribute has been unforgivably shallow, concise and breezed over. In its coverage, “Strange Beauty” simply nods to an artist of obscurity, David Bernam; a quiet affirmation that First Aid Kit remains relevant and active in their music making, that they have not faded into the swirling pot of unknown names and inconsequential bands.

“Strange Beauty,” however, is more than Bernam, more than First Aid Kit and more than any throw-away filler piece to meet a deadline. “Strange Beauty” is grief put to words –– a miraculous feat, when grief so often loss robs us of our speech, cruelly infantilizing its victims with the crippling isolation of heartbreak. First Aid Kit offers us the gift of comprehension. Those familiar with mourning will recognize the solemn truth in these lyrics. Those that have never grieved have the chance to open a rare window into a soul at war with itself.

The song is deceptive in its complexity. There is no overt ingenuity. No exotic metaphors, or winding prose. The words are simple, but the meaning is significant. “David died yesterday / Today it’s raining,” the song begins with first steps, when grief descends and the world narrows to simple facts and straightforward acknowledgements of existence. This is the “drowning hour,” as poet Marian Lineaweaver writes in My Son: Leavetaking. Time suspends, and everything is new and unsure –– you reach for what you know.

To be honest, my affection for this song comes from the striking parallel it holds with my own encounters with loss. “Oh it comes in waves, or a single tear,” the struggle to cope is a battle waged endlessly, hopelessly, and one I know all too well. The pain doesn’t fade, but there is something unquestionably validating in the words murmured in song that go straight to my heart. 

First Aid Kit is not the first to pen an open letter to grief, nor will they be the last. I could very well be deluding myself, too, that this song is any more special than the hundreds that have come before. Grief is a funny thing, found in strange places and things. For some, it might be a memory, a penny, a picture, an old shirt, or a song. But while “Strange Beauty” resonates with my own experience, I do not hold steadfast to its words because it holds a fading piece of who I’ve lost. Rather, because –– as I said before –- there is validation nestled within the chords, the sharp breaths and the lulls of this song. A validation in shared understanding. 

I will not strike of the pretence of defining another’s grief –– it is far too personal a journey for something so audacious. If nothing else, I hope that whoever reads this will come away with affirmation and recognition of their own grief, as I have. But I will be bold enough to argue that First Aid Kit got one thing soul-shatteringly right. When asked to explain what is most painful about grief, it is without doubt that “the world its lost its strange beauty.” From First Aid Kit I gained a sense of ease.

Somber as this song and its implications may be, allow me to make one final suggestion: It is easy to focus on the loss of this “strange beauty,” but it is far more powerful to consider that you offer your own “strange beauty” to the world, and there is more to find if you know how to look.

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