There are some things you can only learn in time. And First Aid Kit should know. “I remember spring / I remember everything / Oh, I guess that’s the way it goes,” Klara and Johanna Söderberg impart, shading their phrasing with subtle yodel cues, with the saucy “Hem of Her Dress,” which brandishes an element of clothing as an agent to heartbreak, the braying acoustic-rendered tune quickly sashaying into a gloriously drunken Mariachi-fueled affair. “So, I am incomplete / So loud and so discrete,” they sing, lurching from composed tenderness to mercurial rage, the dichotomy of womanhood. On Ruins, the pair’s fourth album, the Söderberg Sisters learn all there is to know about life: intoxicating romance, lovelorn bitterness, rosy-cheeked idealism, abounding misfortune, steely-eyed, well-measured resilience ⎯⎯ all in the name of growing up.
“I don’t know what it is that makes me run / That makes me want to shatter everything that I’ve done,” they sing, situating their intrinsic, unruly nature against a longing for stability on “Rebel Heart.” The shame and the disappointment run deep. “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,” they cry in “Fireworks,” a flickering twilight waltz depicting the moment Klara knew a relationship was really over. “I had all these ideas on what my life would be like and it didn’t end up that way. But it did feel natural to write about it,” she described, relinquishing specificity for mood. And that unease and melancholy is the framework of Ruins, ominous and intensely buried in the band’s dissension, cracks splintering from road weariness and lack of personal freedom. With “Postcard,” a joyously melodic toe-tapper, they remind “life’s not what you make it, baby,” blending blinding naivety with cutting discernment. “I was just a kid when I fell for you / I’m not much older now but even then I knew / That the road was steep and full of strife.”
“To Live a Life” then is a sparse mediation on being alone, shuffling through the ashes of a former flame, collecting up the pieces and reconstructing a new identity. “I wrote you a letter to make myself feel better / To redeem some part of me I thought I had lost,” Klara sings. Tears stain her cheeks ⎯⎯ but they belie her tone, a hopeful one in which she will “wake from this dream” someday. “Well, I’m just like my mother / We both love to run / Chase impossible things / Oh unreachable dreams / I lie awake in the night / Thinking this can’t be right / But there is no other way to live a life alone / I’m alone now,” she opines, delicate guitar coming in waves and smacking against tightly-bound harmony work. Peter Buck’s (of R.E.M.) superb playing towers in the background and strikes an emotional, weighty balance with the duo’s expressive storytelling.
Helmed by Tucker Martine (known for producing Neko Case, Mavis Staples, Death Cab for Cutie and others) inside his Portland, Oregon recording studio, Ruins is a noble, magnificent and imposing storybook of two strong women undergoing heartache, hardship, defiance and self-loathing. They rise from the rubble far more self-possessed and willing to test their exact breaking points. Klara and Johanna are at their most honest and focused, permitting themselves to wallow in sorrow, anger, fear, only to reemerge thicker-skinned. “I can’t blame you for taking that path / No matter how I wish you’d come back / Too late now to reclaim the past,” the band observe on the blissful “My Wild Sweet Love,” fastened onto throbbing percussion and a sweeping, orchestral cinematography. The titular track sees the duo scaling a metaphorical mountaintop to observe the wreckage left behind in their wake; the songs leading up to this moment seem to be startling and swift sacrifices, methodical rituals to encase who they were destined to become. “I turned to look at ruins I had left behind / And you, where were you so far removed from any truth / I lost you didn’t I / But first I think I lost myself,” they accept before closing the last cathartic chapter.
Ruins is at times revelatory, other times unequivocally simple. And therein lies the duo’s true charm.
Grade: 4.5 out of 5
Photo Credit: Lauren Dukoff