Ruins sounds like a failed copy of previously delightful pastiche.
Strange that the 2010s’ best façade of classic country comes from Sweden. Stockholm sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg professed their love to Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris on their 2012 breakout The Lion’s Roar and matched their pedestal gazing with a hazy, harmony filled sound that took equally from roots rock, classic folk and Americana. But there’s only so much recycling you can do before the product falls apart. First Aid Kit rummage through the clichés of country like they’re at the yard sale, and they fair as well as your average dumpster diver does, finding some excellent gems, but often coming up with garbage.
Ruins is certainly refined and streamlined from a timing and production standard. This is the duo at their most polished, but that’s largely to their detriment. This is First Aid Kit run through the meat grinder, a sad state considering the experimentation found on The Lion’s Roar. All of the songs on Ruins are uniformly pretty, but mostly unable to do anything even mildly interesting. “To Live a Life” touches down on the album’s central theme of romantic decay with the cutting line (“cheap wine just to the pass the time”), but the sound doesn’t match the emotional heights of its words, sounding like a flatter version of Tallest Man on Earth’s “Bright Lanterns.” It also takes a bit too long to hit its languid peak, and it feels obnoxiously sugary by that point, all swooning guitars and no nuance to match the somber lyrics. The lazy shuffle of “Postcard” has some hidden barbs in its comforting folds. “You’re oh so gifted,” they sing with eyes rolling, but the arrangements are sleepy rather than supplemental to the verses.
“My Wild Sweet Love,” meanwhile, is a Mumford and Sons song. Y’all are better than that. And it also steals a Beach House lyric as its opening line. Appropriate, considering that “Fireworks” is basically a Beach House C-side with a twang. The title track is apathetic leaning toward comatose and “Hem of Her Dress” is hilariously overblown. The closing trumpet line is a nice idea, but the “ya-da-das” seem so over the top and out of place they might have come from a Ween song.
This hits upon the central issue of Ruins. First Aid Kit have tossed aside the weirdness that covered up the frailties of The Lion’s Roar, but are unable to match the pop shine of the production with anything as compelling as “Stay Gold” from their last album. It’s a damn shame, because there are signs of positive growth. The sisters’ storytelling has become more entrancing with each album. The poison found here is strong medicine; some hunk must have been an absolute bastard for a lyric like “your mother’s an actress and we’re all putting on her play.” It’s also still impossible to knock the fluttering vocals between the sisters. That’s still golden. And the wind-swept, cinematic badassery of opener “Rebel Heart” starts the album with some excellent false hope. But that can’t stop Ruins from sounding like a failed copy of previously delightful pastiche.