The word Ruins suggests the destruction of something but at the same time what’s left behind can be valuable too – a glimpse of the past to help us understand where we come from, where we’ve been, who we once were. This new album from First Aid Kit was written after a difficult period personally and professionally when sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg had begun living apart for the first time. It’s an album about heartbreak, growing up and making mistakes, and while it’s true this band have always had wisdom beyond their years, Ruins is filled with a sense of grace and hard won maturity.
Opening with a song called ‘Rebel Heart’ might seem strange for a band whose musical direction has always been so traditional and straight but that contradiction is part of what makes the song so compelling. The turmoil is all on the inside, a self-destructive streak that refuses to conform (in relationships anyway). Klara, usually the chief lyricist in the band, suffered a break up before recording the album and this song searches for answers. I don’t know what it is that makes me run/ that makes me want to shatter everything that I’ve done. There’s no easy epiphanies anywhere on this album, she takes the blows and the blame both. Musically this one sets a new direction for the band too with its build up of beats and brass, sounding like they’ve been listening to The National.
It’s A Shame takes us back to that earthy Americana sound which helped them make their name. Direct, poppy and damn near perfect this is the kind of lush and rich singalong that was notably absent from that overwrought new album by their heroes Fleet Foxes. The harmony on these songs remains the selling point of this band, together the sisters complement each other perfectly – although perhaps this is the first time where an uncertainty in their relationship can be heard in the songs. They are both in different places in their lives, drifting apart.
I admit I took a while to really engage with Fireworks, this kind of fifties ballad sound not being what I expect from the band but it has actually grown on me so much. Now I think it is the heart of the album. ‘I know how it ends before it’s even begun / I’m the only one at the finish line.’ We can’t help hoping, falling in love with the wrong people, making the same mistakes over and over.
Postcards has a vintage seventies country vibe and the vocals just elevate every moment so it sounds instantly classic. I’m alone again at the end of the night, she sings but now she’s sounding more optimistic, asking her ex to send her postcard, to remember her. The folk strum of To Live a Life takes this further – now she writes him a letter. Of all the personal, confessional songs this is the best one on the album. I was too eager and you were too smart. She’s out of this toxic relationship but she’s accepting her part in its destruction. Chasing impossible things. Lost again.
The title track is stunning – with the way it combines the country instrumentation with more orchestral sounds. There’s sadness here but she’s climbing free of it now and learning to leave it behind. Hem of My Dress sounds a lot like With Arms Outstretched by Rilo Kiley in the way it uses the crowd noises and becomes a kind of camp fire singalong. You know it’s going to cut your heart live but you’ll sway along anyway.
The sisters’ natural blood harmony is as powerful as ever throughout Ruins but the final song Nothing Has to Be True is colder, and their voices don’t merge the same way as before. It’s a troubling kind of separation in sound and theme – the lyrics concern the realisation that the place you once thought was home no longer exists. In the end the background vocal is lost among the swirl of instruments, until all we are left with is static that abruptly cuts out. It’s an unsettling finish to a set of songs which never flinch away from staring into the darkness.
The excellent production by Tucker Martine feels like a step up from the first two albums, quietly progressing the sound without leaving behind their folk country strengths. This album wraps heartbreak and suffering in melancholy melodies and searing harmonies so the introspection is cathartic rather than suffocating. First Aid Kit have taken inspiration from Ruins, like the poets did before them, and have made something truly beautiful out of the wreckage.