Monday, June 9, 2014

Music Review: First Aid Kit - "Stay Gold"

A review of the new First Aid Kit album after the jump:

First Aid Kit's third album, Stay Gold, largely unfolds as a series of beautifully crafted, bittersweet tales of being caught between the past and the future. These are themes that have always been present in their work; "Blue", from their 2012 triumph The Lion's Roar, describes someone struggling to see the potential happiness in front of her or him due to a past tragedy, and there are several other fine examples from their past catalog release of people facing the future (with optimism, in the case of "King of the World"), mourning the past (the haunting "Ghost Town"), or even both. Various writers have resorted to "wise beyond their years" cliches when describing sister duo Klara and Johanna Söderberg's exuberant yet slightly world-weary folk-pop anthems, but as a twenty year old, that characterization seems altogether incorrect to me. When you're this age, you're really starting to grapple with some important, disquieting stuff: worries that the path you've chosen to take isn't going to work out, trepidation about going out on your own, losing touch with people in your past, and so much more. Stay Gold at various points addresses all of this. It ten tracks cover, in short, exactly the kind of material you'd expect to hear from talented people in their early twenties.

One rarely hears these universal themes of early adulthood addressed in such an unpretentiously poetic fashion, however. Travel, distance, and/or the passage of time are weaved into every one of the album's songs, reflecting the viewpoint expressed in "My Silver Lining" (one that doubles the album's mission statement): "There's no starting over, no new beginnings / Time races on / You've just gotta keep on keepin' on." Stay Gold is full of songs about keepin' on; "Shattered & Hollow" finds Klara singing about preferring to be "striving than static", while "Master Pretender" ends by changing the final words of the chorus to reflect its heroine's desire to persevere. Whether unconsciously or (more likely) by intention, roads also figure prominently in several tracks, giving the album the feel of both a reflection on former paths taken and future ones that might be embarked upon (often with some trepidation).

Several songs thus take the forms of wistful odes to past experiences: "Cedar Lane's" steady piano and slowly strumming guitar accompany a song whose melody and lyrics both prove equally aching, finally culminating in a repeated refrain of "How can I break away from you?" It's not always entirely clear who the "you" in a given song is referring to; oftentimes it seems to clearly be a former lover, but on several tracks it could easily be a friend, or perhaps even the sisters singing to each other. But it doesn't really matter much. The nostalgia that permeates these songs is the main point. There's regret too: most notably on the stunning closer "A Long Time Ago", a deeply affecting piano ballad about a failed relationship that on the surface would seem to be a far more somber finale than that of the last record. (Particularly coming after the rollicking "Heaven Knows", which rivals "King of the World" as First Aid Kit's catchiest, most buoyant track to date.)

And it is, to some degree. However, even here there's optimism and hope, in the form of a moving declaration of forgiveness and love, right before the more sorrowful chorus kicks in for the last time. When it does, that chorus has been transformed into a statement of calm acceptance rather than the bleak observation it initially was, just as on many of these songs the sense of deeply melancholy remembrance is leavened by the potential of the future. There's potential for failure there, and the possibility of leaving no lasting impact on the world is a threat as well: a concern that propels the lyrical content of the album's title track and "Fleeting One" (the latter of which finds its narrator reflecting that "my work is just a web I've spun"). But "Heaven Knows" finds the possibility for improvement, of moving beyond societal expectations into a more truthful expression of self. And for all its frequent looks backwards, "Shattered & Hollow" ultimately finds itself awash in youthful optimism, with its two protagonists joining hands and facing whatever comes next.

If I'm zeroing in a bit more on the lyrics than the music here, that's because the former is what really sets this album apart. The melodies are of course luscious, and the harmonies crystalline. There might not be a single track here that can match the sheer beauty of The Lion's Roar's "Emmylou" (no shame in that, as few songs can), but every one of them builds to at least one soaring peak: be it the wordless vocalizations of "Waitress Song's" chorus or the way those strings come in to complement the piano on "A Long Time Ago". This deserves high praise, for sure, but it won't surprise anyone familiar with First Aid Kit's previous work. What makes this their finest record to date is how grounded all this musical confidence and beauty is in relatable themes of uncertainty, nostalgia, and the search for a place in the world: themes that coexist and cohere across this entire album. It's hands-down the most unified statement from this great pair of songwriters yet, and what it seems to be saying is this: don't fight the future. Embrace it with poise and self-assurance. With the triumph that is Stay Gold, they certainly appear to have taken their own advice.

Best Tracks: "Cedar Lane" "Shattered & Hollow", "Heaven Knows", and "A Long Time Ago"

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