First Aid Kit are the kind of band whose fame sneaks up on you. The kind of band whose singles you hear on Renault adverts; whom your more hip friends would put on at chill parties; who appear all of a sudden on the Graham Norton Show alongside Tom Hanks; and who get invited to play their new single on US television by Ellen Degeneres.
2014’s Stay Gold won First Aid Kit a healthy following. Ruins should win them their place in music history.
The band consists of sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg. They write sweet country-folk that melds a knack for catchy pop accessibility with a deeper lyrical sensitivity, all bound together by the Söderbergs’ exquisite vocal harmonies. In the tradition of Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Billy Joel, their music pleases your head and your heart at the same time, staring the big questions of life and death in the face all while spinning out a beautiful melody. Your mum would like them, but so would your philosophy professor.
‘Stay Gold’ had its hauntingly catchy chorus: ‘what if our hard work ends in despair? / What if the road won’t take me there?’. Ruins has ‘Nothing Has To Be True’, a stadium-sized ballad that opens with the words ‘each and every breath we take / a step towards death’. The Söderbergs aren’t afraid to offer us their worries, and in the gorgeous wrap of their music such existential doubt comes across as poignant and melancholy rather than whiny and solipsistic.
Sonically, not much has changed in the four years between Stay Gold and Ruins, but on the new release the sisters exhibit a growing tendency to embellish the acoustic base of their songs with touches of electric guitar and synth. There are exquisite moments of bubbling electronica on ‘To Live A Life’, and ‘Rebel Heart’ kicks off with a moody, echo-laden riff reminiscent of Radiohead’s ‘No Surprises’. ‘Ruins’ itself is straight-up country-folk, swaying along over fingerpicked guitar and pedal steel, but the lilting wah-wah in the chorus hints at a wider sound. ‘It’s A Shame’, with its stomping acoustic chug and whistling organ lines, sounds like an outtake from Highway 61 Revisited.
The album’s tour de force, though, is ‘Fireworks’. An aching poem to lost love, it opens with a darkly murmured vocal line that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Lana Del Rey album. Piano and guitar spin and spar through the melody line, and drums thunder ominously at the beat. As the song progresses, it becomes a military waltz, filled with lonely harmonies and spaghetti-western guitar and then, again, the Söderberg signature move – a chorus that will lodge in your brain and break your heart. ‘Why do I do this to myself? / Every time I know the way it ends. / Before it’s even begun, / I am the only one at the finish line.’
This is music that will stand the test of time. Vocally, it is stunning; tonally, it is by turns mystic and pastoral; lyrically, it is mature beyond its creators’ years. Heck, even the cover looks classic. A triumphant return by Sweden’s new greatest musical export.