Review: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold

Three albums in, it’s still not entirely clear what the Swedish duo is adding to the generation-spanning folk conversation.
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Three albums in, it’s still not entirely clear what the Swedish duo is adding to the generation-spanning folk conversation.
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opinion by MICHAEL WOJTAS

The Söderberg sisters really do seem to mean well. True opportunists, Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers have boiled down modern folk into a bankable science of stomping, clapping and whistling. As First Aid Kid, the Söderberg’s have simply presented a more direct counterpart to the complexities of Fleet Foxes and Joanna Newsom, artists they clearly look up to and regularly namecheck. Casting First Aid Kit as hacks wouldn’t just be unduly harsh—it would ignore their very real talent for reinterpretation and harmonization.

But the folk lineage represents an enormous give-and-take process. Three full-length albums in, it’s still not entirely clear what the Swedish duo is adding to this generation-spanning conversation. What is evident is that First Aid Kit gets their inspiration from all the right places. Many small chances are taken throughout Stay Gold, and the Söderbergs use their fine taste as a roadmap for inching out of their comfort zone. The warmth and nimbleness of Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell is summoned for the spritely, sun-soused “Master Pretender,” while the Americana almost-rocker “Heaven Knows” recalls the detail-packed production of Rumours and prime CSNY. And, unsurprisingly, the swelling string and woodwind arrangements that speckle the album borrow and streamline the baroque elements of Helplessness Blues. The veil of dark mystery that enshrouded sophomore effort The Lion’s Roar has been lifted, but the reality underneath it is rather faceless.

And that’s problematic, because Stay Gold is most certainly intended to be intimate, confessional music. Only the opening stanza of “Waitress Song”—in which a major label signee fantasizes about escaping heartbreak by assuming a romanticized working class identity—is outright egregious. The rest is just innocuous. Consider the emblematically word-drunk “My Silver Lining,” which manages to fit a cliché into almost every one of its lines, with no attempt to invert or even contort these maxims into something especially individualized. Or look to the title track, stitched together from commonplace rhetorical uncertainties (“What if to love and be loved is not enough?”). The message is universal in the sense that it’s uncomplicated enough for just about anyone to understand. Yet it’s appropriated with such vague intent, it’s hard to imagine anyone engaging with it on a truly personal level. Contrast this with Fleet Foxes’ equally ponderous “Blow Spotted Tail,” a probable influence which found Robin Pecknold dealing in a similar string of unanswerable questions; in this case, such simplicity is powerful because we realize it’s coming from a songwriter who has, after two albums of literate, idiosyncratic soul searching, retained his capacity for childlike awe and galaxy-gazing curiosity.

All we learn about the Söderbergs from lines like “No gold can stay,” “I try to keep on keeping on” or “I won’t take the easy road” is that they’re still struggling to find worthy sentiments that will put real heart and weight into their harmony-steered vessels. It all amounts to something like painstakingly designed artisanal wrapping paper—beautifully featherweight, but all too easy to dispose of. C+