If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In musical terms, the old maxim mostly holds firm on the fourth First Aid Kit album. The follow-up to 2014’s major-label breakthrough Stay Gold, Ruins tweaks rather than overhauls Klara and Johanna Söderberg’s brand of pop-savvy Americana – yet the trademark harmonic couplings and rolling romantic surges can’t disguise a troubled undertow.
Tucker Martine, the Portland producer who has helmed records by My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens, takes over the reins from Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis, and proves an empathetic foil. Front and centre, as ever, are those glorious sibling harmonies and the sisters’ keen ear for soaring, melancholic melodies, but Martine brings a meatier rhythmic kick to these 10 songs. The brass and drums, in particular, add extra punch, complemented by more pronounced electric guitar and some old-school ’80s keyboard textures. Cameos from Peter Buck, Wilco’s Glenn Kotche and Midlake’s McKenzie Smith contribute to the more varied palette, while Martine slips in some deft production touches: a psych-rock waltz interlude on “Distant Star” is a welcome structural kink; unruly flickers of feedback underscore the gravity of the sombre “Nothing Has To Be True”.
This all counts as a gentle evolution, but there’s something broken here, all the same, a state implied by the album’s stark title. The theme of busted love roars through Ruins like floodwater: “I fell so hard, so blindly,” sings Klara on the opener “Rebel Heart”, establishing the album’s theme. Ruins explores the emotional fall-out of a failed relationship in forensic, almost self-flagellating detail.
Even the jaunty “Postcard” can’t shake the sickness. First Aid Kit have never hidden their country heart, but “Postcard” wears it like a shiny sheriff’s badge. It’s an amiable tears’n’beers bumble, with echoes of Caitlin Rose, scored with honky-tonk piano and pedal steel. Even in this laidback setting, however, the wounds remain raw: “I went and broke my own goddamn heart,” sings Söderberg. There’s more outlaw spirit on “To Live A Life”, a sweet, sad-hearted fingerpicker where the singer is “drinking cheap wine just to pass the time” while pondering a “lost cause” and the hard bargain of the itinerant musician’s life: restless, on the run, alone.
Their powerful vocal DNA and enduring love of simple, open-hearted melodies mean First Aid Kit flirt on occasion with sameness. At other times, they struggle to combat an ingrained politeness. “My Wild Sweet Love”, with its low, insistent beat and artfully understated strings, recalls the much-missed Stornoway at their most windswept. Somehow, however, the song fails to live up to its title. “Ruins”, with its mournful horns, serpentine melody and fluttering flutes, is similarly pretty without ever imposing its identity. “It’s A Shame” begins with a squeal of “Like A Rolling Stone” organ, but the somewhat stiff-legged rhythm hampers a rousing chorus.
Ruins is at its most engaging when the emotion in the words is allowed to hold sway. “Hem Of Her Dress” finds a more raucous form of expression. An accelerated waltz driven by ragged saloon-bar vocals and rattling acoustic guitars, it ends in a big, boozy singalong, horns and strings colliding in the background, like a distant cousin of Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were The Days”. The comfort, however, is short-lived, the lesson being that “some things never heal with time”. With its cool upstrokes and dreamy backing vocals, “Fireworks” is a wintery soul ballad, coming on like a refugee from Phil Spector’s Christmas album. When Klara’s voice cracks at the top of the chorus, however, the most apt comparison is Björk in full flood. “Why do I do this to myself, every time?” she cries. “I know the way it ends… I am the only one at the finish line.”
Ruins culminates with “Nothing Has To Be True”, a beautiful, broken five minutes which recalls the Ryan Adams of Heartbreaker. A stately country-soul ballad with a crushing climax, musically and emotionally it provides the album with a deeply satisfying conclusion, even if redemption remains out of reach. “Why do you love those who turn you into a fool?” ponders Söderberg, lost to consolation. “I feel so far away from the person I once was.”
A more reflective work than Stay Gold, Ruins lacks its immediacy but offers instead greater maturity in its themes, and a determination to reach further in terms of its musical choices. They can go further, but for now Ruins keeps First Aid Kit moving forward, empowered rather than overcome by the wrath of love.
The March 2018 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – with My Bloody Valentine and Rock’s 50 Most Extreme Albums on the cover. Elsewhere in the issue, there are new interviews with Joan Baez, Stick In The Wheel, Gary Numan, Jethro Tull and many more and we also look back on the rise of progressive country in 70s’ Austin, Texas. Our free 15 track-CD features 15 classic tracks from the edge of sound, including My Bloody Valentine, Cabaret Voltaire, Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band, Flying Saucer Attack and Mogwai.