The Lion’s Roar
First Aid Kit
42:46 min • Wichita Records Ltd • January 23, 2012
Some of the most exciting music to surface in recent years has come from the folk scene. Seth Lakeman’s Mercury Prize nominated Kitty Jay, Patrick Wolf’s Wind in the Wires, Elizabeth & the Catapult’s Taller Children and last year’s sublime You & I from The Pierces, have all blazed a trail through a landscape marred with manufactured bands and talent show casualties. This week sees folk music once again Blitzkrieg the front lines of mediocrity as Swedish dyad, First Aid Kit, release their magnificent sophomore album The Lion’s Roar.
It opens with an ignis fatuus track that enchants from its opening bars, luring the listener to march through reeds of guitar, spurred on a wind of flute. It’s not by accident that Mats Udd’s promo for the title track is indefatigably dreamlike, the light shifting between dusk and night following the Söderberg sisters through mist shredded forests in a John Waterhouse vision which culminates upon inky black waters. It’s a vocally rich track in which their voices are closely bound in tightly woven harmonies, a defining characteristic of the album. Such is the charm of the track, that despite its full five minutes in length, it still feels too short and leaves the wayward listener willing to pursue it further.
As ‘The Lion’s Roar’ gently fades it does not prepare for its successor, ‘Emmylou’, as a slide guitar moves from a Pre-Raphaelite sphere to the dusty panoramas of Americana. It’s an almost incongruous transition that typifies the juxtapositions that define this album. ‘Emmylou’ is a perfect case in point; a track that bounces upon the suspension of a road trip melody driven down Route 66, underscored with a melancholy that only a slide guitar can betray, yet is punctuated with the lyrics:
Oh the bitter winds are coming in,
and I’m already missing the summer…
Stockholm’s cold –
But I’ve been told, I was born to endure this kind of weather.
The music takes us one place whilst the lyrics take us to another and it creates a wonderful musical tension that is rarely heard, or works for that matter. But here it does. The result is a remarkable track which soars with an uplifting sort of melancholia that wouldn’t be out of place on the affecting Brokeback Mountain soundtrack.
The album is very much a bittersweet masterpiece, navigating complex emotions and themes that most adults can’t verbalise without the aid of a ‘shrink’ to tease it out of them. This is another surprising contradiction from two young woman whose combined age is not even 40. ‘In The Hearts Of Men’, which exemplifies this maturity, is punctuated with a musical phraseology and lilting lyrical cadence that invokes Morrissey’s later work. And there are other welcome influences here: there is a reverential nod to Beth Orton on ‘To A Poet’, which precedes a pinch of Appalachian Dolly on ‘I Found A Way’ and the heartrending ‘New Year’s Eve’ has Joni Mitchell all over it. These influences, which slalom between folk and country traditions, coupled with the production of Bright Eye’s Mike Mogis, tap into eras and places we have never experienced but which we feel a sense of nostalgia for … and the effect is quite powerful.
‘New Year’s Eve’ has a title and a melody that would make most discerning listeners assume that we have arrived at the final track, yet the Söderberg girls have one (maybe two) more tricks up their bell-sleeves with a closing track that hails from Calexico country. If we hadn’t yet comprehended the true nature of this album, the conflicting lyrics:
I’m nobody’s baby, I’m everybody’s girl,
I’m the Queen of Nothing, I’m the King of the World!
which ring out through a hand-clapped frenzy are a clarifying totem. Horns that epitomise the Spaghetti-westerns of Central American, hail the real end of the album, and it’s shocking (though by now shouldn’t be that surprising) how far the marsh lights have lead us from that first bewitching track. In Scandinavian lore it’s believed that the will-o’-the-wisp marks the place of a treasure. I can not think of a more apt analogy. Listening to The Lion’s Roar is like unearthing a lost treasure whose idiosyncrasies are its real worth. Each time I listen to this album I want to return to its beginning and start all over again. Which I do. Repeatedly.