[11 June 2014]
From their auspicious YouTube beginnings in 2008, Swedish siblings Klara and Johanna Söderberg branded themselves First Aid Kit, attracting attention to their debut album, The Big Black and the Blue, with their cover of “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” by Fleet Foxes. Citing such American influences as Johnny and June Carter Cash, the Louvin Brothers, Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons on their 2012 breakout album, The Lion’s Roar, First Aid Kit look to move beyond classic Americana on their major-label debut, Stay Gold.
This marked divergence opens Stay Gold on “My Silver Lining”, with its Middle Eastern shuffle in which younger sister Klara proclaims, “I won’t take the easy road.” The Söderberg sisters’ ambition is set forth on the sparse dirge, “Shattered & Hollow”, singing, “Oh, I’d rather be striving than settled / Oh, I’d rather be moving than static.” Speaking as much to the future as their past, “Shattered & Hollow” can be viewed as a love song or a recounting of the duo’s ascension from fresh-faced teens to seasoned musicians charting their own course: “We said we’re going to get out of here.” This apologetic defiance is reiterated on the whistling lilt of “The Bell”. Featuring the duo’s trademark harmonies, “The Bell” exhibits Stay Gold‘s finest lyrical moment: “From the rust that lies deep in its throat / I hear solemn, monotone notes / The danger, the ebbs and the flows / In the silence of night / It lets me know that I’m not coming home.”
Again produced by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes / Monsters of Folk), the instrumental barrenness that marked The Lion’s Roar is gone; the songs of Stay Gold may bring to mind desert passes and dirt roads but are filled with a pointed gloss that shoots for commercial appeal. On “Fleeting One”, finger-picked guitar bookends swelling orchestral flourishes. Subtle pedal steel and piano texture “Cedar Lane”, clearing the way for the Söderbergs’ powerful vocals, rising to a near scream on the song’s refrain of “How could I break away from you?”
Beyond musical influences, Stay Gold takes its title from a touchstone of American poetry: Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. Co-opting the lines “So dawn goes down to day / Nothing gold can stay”, “Stay Gold” frets over dreams unfulfilled and shattered desires. Learning experiences are recounted on the closing piano ballad, “A Long Time Ago”. A lonesome tale of failed love realized too late, the song shows maturity in the lines “I hold no grudges / I come bearing forgiveness / Only love / Only love even if it’s not enough.”
Whereas The Lion’s Roar was a gem in the rough, Stay Gold is a lustrous jewel, radiating radio-ready choruses. The country leaning of Lion‘s “Emmylou” is largely buffed away, the lone vestige of their Americana roots being the waltzing “Cedar Lane”. However, Stay Gold does exhibit signs of growing pains. The Söderbergs’ naiveté peeks through on the escapist “Waitress Song”, its “dark, twisted road” lacking the primal bleakness of Neko Case’s “I Wish I Was the Moon” which the song recalls. The self-empowering anthem “Heaven Knows” follows the whirling stomp-and-shout template of Lion‘s “King of the World” which featured Conor Oberst and the Felice Brothers.
For all the dusty byways covered on Stay Gold, First Aid Kit shows to be wise beyond their years. Owing more to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” than “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, the protean Stay Gold largely opts not to tread prior ground. With its illuminated flashes of brilliance, First Aid Kit can henceforth know their resolute drive made all the difference.