First Aid Kit’s ‘Ruins’ is smart, fresh and haunting

Sunday, January 21, 2018 - 5:38pm

NOSELL

Columbia Records

 

Folk music has always been tied to place. Depending on where you look in history, you can attach the word “folk” to Celtic traditions in Scotland and Ireland, early recordings from the mountains of Appalachia or the songs and spirituals passed down from days of slavery in the South, to name only a few. While this might seem like it would splinter the genre, it is in fact one of its most unifying qualities: The idea that by using a few instruments and writing what they feel, people can bring a sense of community into their music, no matter where they are.

In Ruins, First Aid Kit carries on a tradition already established by some of the greatest folk artists out there: They extend the genre beyond place by rooting themselves within the music itself. Their brand of folk music isn’t tied to a specific place or people; it’s a feeling, an honesty, that they carry with them wherever they go. Sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg hail from Sweden, but over the course of Ruins, they refrain from tying themselves to one place: climbing mountains in “Ruins,” standing on a Chicago beach in “Fireworks.” Sometimes it feels like they’re leading you through the sweeping deserts of California, while other songs, notably “Postcard,” sound like they could have come straight out of some intimate venue in Nashville. Closing your eyes, you can almost feel the warmth; you can almost see the piano keys under the dusky starlight and the silhouetted heads of the people around you.

Part of what earns First Aid Kit this brand of universality is their shrewd attention to lyricism. One thing you can say definitively about this band is that they understand how to make folk smart. Rather than falling prey to the looping phrases and overused tropes that are often the trademarks of mediocre folk (relying too heavily on the listener’s sentimentality), they continue to strike a successful balance between visual scenes and personal confessions. The complete package comes across like a lost diary or a book of poems. Equally impressive is their ability to render emotions simply and eloquently. Lines like, “Send me a postcard / When you get to where you’re going / Send me a line / To everything you’ve left behind,” coupled with yearningly beautiful vocal deliveries from the Söderbergs are both deceptively simple and utterly heartbreaking.

Lyrics aside, Ruins is also beautiful in a musical sense. In “Fireworks,” you can hear the sisters exploring every syllable with voices that sound made for each other. “My Wild Sweet Love” espouses a dreaminess to match its own lyrics. One of the album’s highlights is its cohesion between lyrics and melody. “To Live a Life” and “Distant Star” both walk you through seamless, singular transformations; you can literally hear it, in the melody and in the lyrics, how the speaker is finishing the song in a different place from where they began.

All in all, Ruins is a journey lived step-by-step. In the space of 40 minutes, the Söderbergs glide between dread, self-examination, honesty, loss and the wrong sides of love, the sides that make you wake up feeling burnt. They’re natural and self-conscious at the same time, with lines like, “Goodbye never seems finished / Just like these songs that I write,” from the even-paced yet anxious “Distant Star.” Each song feels like a clear and isolated shift, all building toward a conclusion that in a way feels twofold. There’s the rage, blame and regret mixed together in “Hem of Her Dress,” the understated penultimate track, which includes lines that are literally snarled and shouted. It fades out into clapping, lending itself to the live feel of the album — which is quickly ditched in the final song, “Nothing Has to Be True.” A confessional with glowing lines like, “You can tell yourself so many things / And nothing has to be true,” it ultimately slams to black with an abrupt ending that sounds like an aux cord being pulled away.

“Now I feel so far away / From the person I once was,” the sisters sing during these final few minutes. And so do we: The album is a complete journey from start to finish, in an almost tangible sense. But the peak is the second track, “It’s a Shame,” which sails effortlessly between a verse that makes you want to roll down your windows and sing, and a chorus that makes you want to open yourself up and cry. In a way, this is a perfect example of what the entire album is really doing. First Aid Kit are opening themselves up to you and inviting you to open yourself back, showing you firsthand what you have to lose and how you will survive losing it, what you have to gain and how you will win it. They invite you to unloose yourself, starting at the heart and working outwards. And you don’t have to, but there are so many beautiful things waiting there for you to see if you do.