First Aid Kit- Stay Gold
First Aid Kit is the folk-duo comprised of Swedish sisters, Johanna and Clara Söderberg. With the release of their fourth album, their first on a major label, Stay Gold is a culmination of the hard work these sisters have put into their music. They have been considered contemporaries of modern folk legends Fleet Foxes, recorded with Jack White, and have an established artistic friendship with Conor Oberst, touring with his band Bright Eyes and singing backing vocals on his latest solo album. With First Aid Kit’s newest LP, Stay Gold, the duo has cemented their sound of mature folk-pop that still keeps the essence of a country twist.
As with much folk, the strongest element of this album is the vocals. These sisters have such a strong command over their harmonies. Seamlessly, they ebb and flow, trading off melodies and harmonies, leading the listener into the haunted, pure notes being sung. Without even listening to the lyrics, the sound of the vocals, the earnestness, wit, and pain all trickle out. The notes are never forced, even on more upbeat tracks, but they are well controlled with a finessed power. This same mature understanding of music and the way melody and harmony lines interact is revealed in the music of Stay Gold. First Aid Kit and their band have a way of composing great folk-pop without relying on major label industry standards, like dueling guitars and a mustached Brooklyn-ite plucking a banjo. No. Instead, the album is filled with lush orchestration and simple, yet necessary, percussion. While there are acoustic guitar strums and plucks and a piano, it is the use of not only string instruments, but woodwinds as well, that give Stay Gold its distinct sound. Sonically, First aid Kit know who they are, and the polished recordings courtesy of a major label only enhance the band.
Lyrically, Stay Gold appears to tell the story of a relationship that the narrator feels was forced to go on to long, and while highlighting moments of their time together, finally realizes that it wasn’t meant to be. While this subject matter may seem a bit morbid, or even cliché, First Aid Kit shines brightest in the depths of somber ballads and mid-tempo recollections.
On the mid-tempo title track, ‘Stay Gold’, the sisters sing, “What if our hard work ends in despair?/ What if the road won’t take me there?/ Oh, I wish for once, it could stay gold./ What if to love and be loved is not enough?…” This kind of questioning is what drives the content of not only this song, but the album in its entirety. The lyrics, while simple on the surface, actually question the clichéd, candid responses given to those struggling with love and relationships. It is said hard work pays off, but difficult tasks are trying and often lead to more strains on the relationship. There is the saying we are all on a journey and all have paths carved out for themselves, but these sisters are asking an important question; what if the path I’m meant to follow doesn’t end in a place where ‘we’ are together? That last question, “What if to love and be loved is not enough?”, sticks out to me, mainly because of their relationship with Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes. He used the line, ‘We have a problem/ with no solution/ but love and to be loved” on a song many years ago. This reviewer can’t help but sense the sisters of First Aid Kit are alluding to Mr. Oberst while at the same time making their own statement that there has to be more to a relationship than the platitudes given by those outside the relationship.
On the track, ‘Cedar Lane’, the sisters are vocally at their strongest, perfectly complimenting the slow, sweeping orchestration of slide guitars and woodwinds. It is a song about remembering a time when things seemed to be better, bringing the narrator to a place that holds precious memories. While reflecting on Cedar Lane, the narrator sings of walking with their lover and how, “time moved so swiftly/ all of those days”, and how the lover told the narrator, “Something good will come out of this.” Lyrically, First aid Kit is able to take the listener into the moments when times were pleasant and full of hope, forgetting that on the larger scale, problems are not being resolved.
Now, don’t worry, while the album does keep a slower, steady tempo, the sisters let loose with a little fire on the barn burner, ‘Heaven Knows’. It has a slow intro, ending in the lyrics, “paid so much attention to what you’re not/ you have no idea who you are.” Then it kicks in to full gear with the sisters singing, “But heaven knows, knows that you’re a liar”, and takes off from there. The song is that immediate post-break-up realization and burden-lifted-off-the-shoulders excitement at your whole world opening up again.
Stay Gold is strong folk-pop album that is mature enough to be enjoyed by folk enthusiasts and polished enough to earn radio play. And while the album could have ended on the upbeat, in-your-face attitude of ‘Heaven Knows’, First Aid Kit showcase their true songwriting sensibilities and end the album with a contemplative, somber, song that understands the hope ahead, but is not in denial of the heartache that will accompany the end of the relationship traced throughout the album. This alone should be reason enough to appreciate the brevity of the album as a whole. Maturity is a tough sell in the major label business, dominated by songs about clubbing and forgetting about silly boys and meeting the next hunk who is sensitive because he wears glasses. First Aid Kit do not shy away from stark reality, ending on a song that makes the listener yearn for more, taking their time after the album has ended to think to themselves. That, is the sign of a great album.