First Impressions: Palomino by First Aid Kit

Eight years later and strains of “Cedar Lane” still percolate from the back of my brain, aka the unconscious mind, to take up residence centerstage in my thoughts: “I still remember how you used to say/Something good will come out of this.” That slab of psychedelic folk from First Aid Kit’s stellar 2014 Stay Gold LP is soulful and intense, mining the darkness for a mantra to move past regret but unearthing self-recrimination instead: “How could I break away from you?” It’s a hypnotic song and performance.

Jump ahead to their latest long player, the studio followup to 2018’s Ruins, which was a thing of fragile, haunting beauty. Released last week, Palomino finds the sisters Soederberg (Klara and Johanna) grappling with anxiety, self-doubt and matters of the heart in ways that are as equally fetching as the albums that preceded it, with the main difference being that the music is—by and large—more upbeat and the production glossier. The shift is obvious from the get-go with “Out of Our Heads,” one of several songs written with outside collaborator Björn Yttling, who’s previously worked with (among others) Neko Case, Chrissie Hynde and Lykke Li.

Other tunes feature songwriting assists from producer Daniel Bengtson, in whose Stockholm studio they recorded. As a whole, the album sports a polished sheen reminiscent somewhat of Mirage-era Fleetwood Mac—though, as Johanna observes in this Consequence interview, they still sound like themselves: “We just try to write something that sounds like other artists and it just ends up sounding like us.” In the same interview, Klara notes, “We want people to hear the album and feel less lonely.” “Angel,” the next track, does just that, digging into anxiety, shame and doubt while simultaneously seeking to bury them in the past. They are things most folks, at some point in their lives, deal with to one extent or another. “Ready to Run” explores additional universal truths, especially the role assumptions play in life. (In the immortal words of Felix Unger, “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me!”)

“Turning Onto You” includes one of the Easter eggs that Johanna mentions in the interview—not a line borrowed from another’s song, but the framework itself, which builds on the melodic foundation of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Here, however, instead of the narrator crossing over into the netherworld, infatuation is encroaching onto love. Accented by a cool bass line, “Fallen Snow” features the duo singing the lyrics in unison; it furthers the idea behind the prior track, with love in full flower: “I’m gonna love you till the moon don’t shine/Oh, I’m gonna love you till the waters run dry.”

“Wild Horses II” is something of a wry comedy that, in the Consequence interview, Klara said she envisioned as a movie when writing. It’s something of a play on High Fidelity in that sense, but more scenic with its locales: the mountains, a rainstorm, and a cheap motel. In it, a couple finds themselves split by the song “Wild Horses”—he prefers the Stones’ version, while she likes the rendition by the Flying Burrito Brothers. The lyrics lay out a larger truth, however: The song preference is emblematic of larger issues in the relationship.

“The Last One” finds the narrator’s hungry heart filled not by love, but the desire to love: “I want to love you like nobody’s ever loved you/I want to be the last one I ever love.” “Nobody Knows” delves into the other side of that equation, of feeling alone when love slips away. “A Feeling That Never Came” sports a T. Rex-like guitar riff while recounting how and why a relationship went awry—infatuation doesn’t always lead to great love affairs, just weekend retreats. “29 Palms Highway” delves into the spirits, with the narrator seeking a connection with a departed loved one while driving through a desert.

The album closes with the title track. It’s not an equestrian’s ode, but a song-long metaphor about wanting to leave the past behind: “I want to ride off on a palomino/Feel the fire in my breath and the breeze in my hair as I go/Why the hell am I even looking back for?” We look back, of course, because a part of us remains stuck there, forever, just as the people in our pasts ride alongside us, always.

As a whole, the retro-pop elements don’t diminish the songs of Palomino, though they do take some getting used to; the Fleetwood Mac sheen sometimes shimmers close to Abba territory—not a bad thing, per se, just not what one expects from First Aid Kit. So if you’ve heard it once and aren’t sure, give it a second go. And if you haven’t heard it yet? Put it to the test, let it try—take a chance, in other words. It’s well worth a few dozen listens. I’ve had it on repeat for much of the week and like it more with each new play.

The track list:

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