First Aid Kit’s ‘Ruins’ experiments with new sound but maintains folk roots
Maggie Walsh | Friday, January 26, 2018
In the fall of my freshman year, homesick and overwhelmed, I would sit at my desk and listen to music. I often turned to First Aid Kit’s nostalgic 2014 record, “Stay Gold,” as a remedy for loneliness. Now in the spring of my senior year, I’m once again sitting at my desk listening to the Swedish sisters, specifically to their newest release “Ruins,” this time much less homesick but probably more sentimental than ever.
In the four years since their last release, Johanna and Klara Söderberg have not been idle. The interim saw the duo touring internationally, navigating countless television appearances and, most notably, releasing a fiery and defiant single for International Women’s Day called “You Are the Problem Here.” Following that single’s departure from the sisters’ typical sound, First Aid Kit’s fourth studio record, “Ruins,” reveals the sisters’ music as more varied and slightly more world-weary than ever before.
“Ruins” is a quintessential breakup record. Klara ended her engagement in 2015, an ordeal that caused her to turn back to songwriting for comfort. Between the heartbreak of that broken engagement and sorting out her sometimes-rocky relationship with Johanna, the lyrics paint a picture of two sisters recovering from an exhausting tour schedule and the resulting major changes in their lives. “Ruins” is built around endings and the loneliness that so often accompanies these ends.
Throughout the record, the dark lyricism is juxtaposed with the sisters’ buoyant harmonies and mellifluous tunes. Tucker Martine, known for his work with The Decemberists and Neko Case, worked with First Aid Kit to produce “Ruins.” Peter Buck of R.E.M. lends his legendary guitar skills in collaboration with the sisters as well. He is presumably responsible for the enticing, Johnny Marr-esque guitar riff during the coda of “Rebel Heart.” Wilco’s Glen Kotche and Midlake’s McKenzie Smith worked as backing musicians throughout “Ruins.” Klara and Johanna also credit their musical family with contributing backup vocals and bass guitar.
Although the Söderberg sisters are often labeled as an Americana band, the influences for “Ruins” transcend the folk genre. The anthemic song “My Wild Sweet Love” opens with the line “What comes after this? Momentary bliss,” a reference to dream pop outfit Beach House’s song “Myth.” The sing-along track, “Hem of Her Dress,” is First Aid Kit’s tribute to one of their favorite groups, Neutral Milk Hotel. The record’s first single, “It’s A Shame,” recalls the upbeat, energetic vibe of Fleetwood Mac’s iconic album “Rumours.” Folk is certainly still a touchpoint for First Aid Kit, but the diversity of genres in their influences has expanded their sound.
The album’s strongest songs are two of the singles, “Fireworks” and “Ruins.” The band recently released a ‘80s prom–themed music video for “Fireworks” which perfectly conjures the waltz-y, nostalgic tone of the song. “Fireworks” poignantly evokes unmet expectations and lost love. “Ruins,” the title track, takes a slightly more optimistic stance — one of the lights at the end of this album’s tunnel. The song’s ascending melodies leave listeners feeling purified even as the lyrics examine the ruins of failed relationships and the following impulse to rebuild.
“Ruins” may be a breakup record, but it definitely isn’t vengeful; it’s not even despondent. In fact, the overwhelming tone of the album is hopeful. The sisters are still exploring their sound and perfecting their lyrics, but “Ruins” shares advice that my homesick, freshman self would have appreciated, and that my existentially anxious and constantly sentimental current self needs to hear: The loneliest of ruins can also be strong foundations for new beginnings.
Artist: First Aid Kit
Label: Columbia Records
Favorite Track: “Ruins,” “Fireworks”
If You Like: Neko Case, Fleet Foxes, Sharon Van Etten