Swedish sister act First Aid Kit have lead something of a charmed life. Internationally famous by the time most girls their age were entering high school, Klara and Johanna Soderberg have enjoyed success the entirety of their recording career. With their latest major label release, Stay Gold (Columbia), there’s little reason to wonder why.
The album’s opening track and first single, “My Silver Lining,” loses no time in making the statement that the sisters have matured away from the dreamy folk platform they’ve used to great effect on past albums The Big Black and the Blue and The Lion’s Roar. With age comes responsibility, and with success comes the pressure of expectation. Featuring an up tempo rhythm heavy orchestration, “Silver Lining” mines the depth of uncertainty as life moves forward for the song’s narrator. As the title would imply, its lyrics nervously anticipate the decisions made at a crucial point in a young woman’s life.
Titular track “Stay Gold” returns the sisters Söderberg to more comfortable ground. First Aid Kit’s discography is chock full of tracks like this. Hope meets lyrical despair over soft finger picking and emotive vocal delivery. The girls have spent a fair portion of their career under the tutelage of Omaha’s Connor Oberst. Indeed, they sing backing vocals on the majority of “Upside Down Mountain,” and it’s doubtless Oberst’s world-weary-at-19 approach to songwriting has had an effect on the album.
This doesn’t necessarily equate to imitation. Certain tracks on “Stay Gold” approach jazz territory in timing and key structure. Most notable is the Nick Drake tinged fingering on “The Bell.” While the vocal delivery is more forceful in nature than the humble Englishman ever attempted, it is undeniable the guitar work pays homage to Drake’s celebrated canon. It is an all around pleasant track that plies serene instrumentation against conflicted self-searching lyrics.
Unfortunately, First Aid Kit have presented a lop sided album with Stay Gold. Ten tracks is no great amount of material, but it does seems towards the latter half of the recording Klara and Johanna cover the same ground over and again. There is nothing unpleasant or forced in the work, but it does seem like the sisters ran out of ideas, or else steam, with one shining exception. “Heaven Knows” opens in the same manner as the majority of the album’s tracks. Soft mid tempo vocals set up the song’s platform, but as opposed to previous inclusion, the snare unexpectedly kicks up and the audience is treated to a rollicking accusatory number. First Aid Kit wants you to know they’re more than just a dream folk duo singing love songs. Sweden may be a neutral country but these girls have teeth.
As always, First Aid Kit have used vocal harmony to great effect on Stay Gold. Anyone who’s ever seen the group live can attest to the arresting nature of their voices. Individually each gives a powerful performance, but when the sisters sing together it can be a thing of glory. First Aid Kit’s predominant strength lies with their beauty. Yes, their angelic appearance, but also in the dream like state induced by their music. It’s a very popular notion for the moment to play ultra hip, objectively ironic, artist as devoid of romantic emotion. Thankfully, First Aid Kit is wise enough to avoid this strategy of concealment altogether. Stay Gold is an autumnal album for the summer months. It is sweet and slow, reflective and emotionally present. Like a fairy tale, Stay Gold might seem juvenile in its focus on romantic dissonance, but like a fairy tale the songs possess deeper implications than surface analysis would immediately relate.