Love, lust, loss, regret, recrimination, and reflection – those are the raisons d’être for much, though certainly not all, popular music. From alternative to zydeco, and all the in-betweens, songwriters chart matters of the heart and soul with lyrical laments and exultations set to melodies and rhythms that, they hope, impart similar sentiments. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. And success or failure depends not upon a strict set of rules, but who’s listening.
Which is to say, Ruins is a sterling set of songs from sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, aka First Aid Kit, that grows stronger with each listen. One way I know an album has staying power is that, when I’m not listening to it, snippets splash from the back of my brain like a soft rain in the summertime. And just as often happens with a soft rain, those initial drips gradually pick up in intensity and, within minutes, a downpour ensues. Such was the case this week with this album. First one song…
… then another…
… and then another.
By now, I’d wager, most fans know the backstory to Ruins: After the Stay Gold LP and tour, the sisters parted ways – not from an acrimonious falling out, but because of life. Klara followed her heart (and boyfriend) to Manchester; Johanna stayed put in Stockholm. By the time they came together to begin work on their next project, however, Klara’s relationship had ended…and, thus, an album was born. (Klara delves deeper into it in this informative Paste interview.) In short, it’s a 10-song quest for the light at the end of a dark tunnel.
Pitchfork calls “Fireworks” and several of the other tracks “bold stylistic departures.” Honestly, they’re no more radical a departures than “Wolf” was back in 2012. As FAK (or their social-media person) said in a Facebook post at the time, it’s “very different from anything we’ve ever done before.” It’s called evolution. Growth. The willingness to tackle a new style – or, in this instance, old, given that the song conjures the R&B ballads popular during the 1950s – is what happens when artists follow their muse.
As a whole, the songs delve into heartache, heartbreak and hard truths, and often attempt to wish away the pain – “Lately I’ve been thinking about the past/How there is no holding back/No point in wasting sorrow/On things that won’t be here tomorrow” – while being unable to do just that. It’s a shame, indeed, but that oxymoron is the grist that’s often milled by living life.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the final song, “Nothing Has to Be True,” an emotional epic about self-doubt and self-awakening, and the vagaries of both. It’s one of their greatest works, easily, and is the song I’m most excited to hear live.
I’ll close with this: A relationship-gone-wrong has resulted in many a great song and album through the decades. While it’s far too soon to say where this LP lies in that pantheon, it’ll be interesting to see how it grows in stature (or not). The songs may not become a Parthenon for heartache, but my hunch is that these Ruins won’t be forgotten anytime soon.