It’s been almost four years since Stay Gold, the critically acclaimed album full of Cosmic American Music-tinged folk, put Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, aka First Aid Kit, on the map. As fans eagerly awaited a follow-up, the sisters slowly broke down. Subjected to the draining tedium of a never-ending tour, they eventually found themselves blandly going through the motions as the ground beneath their feet never stopped moving. Factor in a serious break-up and a long-awaited homecoming that left more questions than answers, and you’ve got the inspiration for their new record—the fittingly titled Ruins.
Written largely in Joshua Tree where they hunkered down after the dissolution of Klara’s engagement, Ruins is a more mature record. Not that it’s darker per se; their gorgeous, blood-close harmonies and the sunny streaks of pedal steel guitar keep it from ever feeling too morose. Instead, there’s a gentle weight of experience that permeates the album’s lyrics, a freshly-sharpened edge of cynicism.
The tone is set from the opening cut, as a heartbeat rhythm and ominous melody fills the ether with the energy of a coming storm, all building to a coda where they slap you right in the face with it. “Nothing matters/All is futile,” they sing; a far cry from the optimistic wanderlust at the center of much of Stay Gold. That optimism pokes through musically on the next cut, “It’s A Shame,” the warm acoustic guitar and galloping rhythm adding a positive spin to lyrics like “No point in wasting sorrow/On things that won’t be here tomorrow.” What mostly remains from Stay Gold are their siren’s-call voices, intertwining with intuitive, close harmonies that can only come from being related.
The crux of what they’ve learned becomes apparent quickly: Nothing is permanent. All there really is, is the present moment. It’s a lesson that’s explored across several different sounds. There’s the classic country of the easy-riding “Postcard,” the ‘50s doo-wop vibe of “Fireworks” and even a return to their folk roots with “To Live A Life,” where they realize that they themselves, like everything else, also cannot stay for long.
It’s the last three songs that push an already arresting album to the next level. The title track finds their voices lilting, tumbling with a graceful rise and fall toward the gorgeous chorus, with the lyrics deftly exploring human nature and our constant urge to try and keep things from slipping through our fingers. “Hem Of Her Dress,” delightfully dwells in the bitterness of being left for another woman, before turning to acceptance, as rousing brass and a chorus of people turn it into a drinking chant you might hear in a bar with a soccer game on the TV. “Nothing Has To Be True” is the most stripped-down track of the album, but the most affecting. As the sisters trade heartbreaking lines about waking up “drenched in your own sweat and tears,” the rest of the album comes back to wash over you. “And I may have dreamt it/Or it may have happened,” Johanna sings, driving home one last time that all we have is now.