Music Review: Ruins/First Aid Kit (released 18 January 2018)

by Gargs Allard

In more ways than one, Ruins by First Aid Kit is the aftermath of a breakup album. Perhaps that’s what makes it so compelling and moving to listen to. But it’s not just apropos for people who are dealing with the loss of a serious romantic relationship. It’s approachable and identifiable to anyone in this world who has had to cope with the ravages of time.

First came the “breakup” of the Söderberg sisters, Johanna and Klara. After intense touring for First Aid Kit’s 2014 breakthrough record Stay Gold, Klara moved away from her sister and native Stockholm. She took up residence with her fiancé in Manchester, England.

It wasn’t until that relationship came apart, that Klara starting writing songs again.  Suddenly, her fiancé was out of her life but so was her writer’s block. Her heart needed a serious release. The songs poured out of her with a vengeance.

When Johanna joined her to record Ruins, the songwriting dynamic the duo once used was not applicable. Whereas they once created organically from scratch, Johanna found herself instead editing and making suggestions around Klara’s writing.

The Songs

Ruins, is the fourth full LP offering by the Swedish duo. Their backing band, assembled by first-time First Aid Kit producer Tucker Martine, includes Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and former REM guitarist Peter Buck. Together they sound like a refreshing throwback to a different era when a greater number of listeners and artists actually cared more about the craft of songwriting.

As anyone aware of their story knows, the sisters’ father Benkt Söderberg was the lead guitarist/bassist for the popular Swedish rock group Lolita Pop. The daughters sound is softer than their father’s. Perhaps it’s the natural rebellion children go through in order to establish their individual identity.

Speaking of rebels, the first track of the album is a reflective song called “Rebel Heart,” that could shake the emotions out of even the stone hearted. The song begins, “You told me once I had a rebel heart – I don’t know if that’s true/But I believe you saw something in me that lives inside of you.” Later she repeatedly asks, “Why do I keep dreaming of you?/Is it all because of my rebel heart?”

As with any great album, a gifted songwriter is able write a song with certain lines that stick with you. Klara Söderberg achieves this throughout the record, but perhaps particularly in “Distant Star,” the seventh track of the album.

When Klara sings, “But I hold on to whatever I can until it’s gone/I’ll carry on, for none of us will be here for too long,” your soul feels it because it’s talking to the real you.

In Ruins, the younger of the Söderberg sisters captures the feeling of philosophically coping with eternal longings while living in a temporary world. Only a songwriter with higher sensibilities can truly capture that.

The contrast of  “I’ll try not to let the world and its darkness bring me down” delivered by her beautiful voice stun the heart.

The entire album is brilliant and dare I say, for lack of a less-cliched synonym, haunting.

The sisters’ harmonies are heavenly, and they both sing from the heart – particularly Klara, who it seems poured out her very soul on this record.

Cathartic Recordings

“It a Shame,” is classic First Aid Kit – light, upbeat and dreamy musically, but something like impending dusk lyrically. Steve Moore’s piano and organ, sound like The Band themselves are backing Dylan during his golden period of the middle ’60s. Lines like “Sometimes the night cuts through me like a knife,” “In LA the sun’s almost too bright,” and “Who have I become? Who will I be tomorrow?” sound so painfully honest that you want to make sure Klara gets a first aid kit herself and ASAP.

The sisters’ dad plays bass on all but two tracks and electric guitar on “Fireworks,” one of the singles of the LP. It is a beautifully melodic song that gradually builds, and asks “Why do I do this to myself? Every time I know the way it ends.” The transitions from verse to chorus and back again are seamless. Johanna’s background harmonies fit perfectly to Klara’s mournful but determined voice. The song hits a crescendo when Klara sings the bridge, “Stood out in that beach in Chicago/Woke up next to you on Silverlake Avenue/Wherever I went I always knew, always knew – until I didn’t know.”

“Postcard” is a good old fashioned country song, replete with steel-pedal guitar, and is perhaps the best song on the album. “We were looking to mend it but we tore it apart/And I went and broke my own goddamn heart/For life’s not what you make it baby,” eloquently conveys a helplessness that we’ve all perhaps felt in our own pursuit of happiness. Try listening to this song, without having some tears come out of you.

And while you’re doing that, you might as well listen to the whole record on repeat for a while. Perhaps you’ll feel some forgotten wounds heal within. It could even make you a better person.

“But I know you truly saw me – even for just a while/ Maybe that’s why it hurts now to leave it all behind.” –  Klara Söderberg

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