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First Aid Kit: Who By Fire

Although only recorded a few years ago, Who by Fire already has a kind of historical, time capsule feel, its 20 tracks having been taken from rapturously received performances over two nights at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm in March of 2017. The Söderberg sisters are generally thought of as being at the more pop/commercial end of the folk spectrum; the album’s strong point is that it isn’t just the kind of greatest hits package one might expect. Opening boldly with a recital (with vibraphone accompaniment) of the poem “Tired” from Cohen’s 2006 Book of Longing, the shows that spawned Who by Fire drew from Cohen’s music as well as his poems and letters and involved actors Maia Hansson-Bergqvist and Nina Zanjani, plus a large choir as well as the sisters and their band in what was a genuinely theatrical occasion.

Picking and choosing certain songs – the a capella “Bird on the Wire” is an obvious example – it might seem there’s a danger of the performances being too pretty to really capture Cohen’s words and ideas, but taken as a whole, the structure prevents that from happening. There are recitations that punctuate the songs – like “Twelve O’Clock Chant,” “The Asthmatic” and a harsh reading of “The Future” – which tend to be narrated in indomitable, rather than fragile tones and even on many songs, such as the title track and the driving and bitter “Everybody Knows,” First Aid Kit brings a tough edge to the sound that eliminates the fey quality that occasionally marks the album’s gentler moments.

There are lots of guests; fellow Swede Loney Dear sings a powerful, very European-accented version of “Avalanche,” while Jesper Lindell gives a beautifully forlorn performance on “Chelsea Hotel #2.” It’s lush in comparison with Cohen’s original version and as with several songs, the lyrics seem a little odd when sung as a duet (or trio in this case), but the intimate quality of the song comes through intact. The epic, dramatic version of “You Want It Darker” takes things up a level with strings, a choir and both Zanjani and Hansson-Bergqvist declaiming the lyrics alongside the singers. It’s a big, theatrical performance, darkly gothic and all the more effective because it segues into a version of “If It Be Your Will” which begins with bare piano and vocals before building delicately into another powerful and moving performance. “Famous Blue Raincoat” is dramatic and contemporary-sounding and has an outstanding vocal from Maja Francis; what surprises again and again is that singers with something like the opposite of Cohen’s voice and delivery can make his lyrics live so vividly. These are highlights from an album with many of them, and only a few lows.

Those few lows all have more to do with the prodigious length of Who by Fire than the actual performances, which are all fine or even excellent in themselves. But sometimes the material is just a bit overfamiliar. For instance, of course it’s inevitable that they must tackle “Hallelujah,” and – with the help of Annika Norlin’s fragile voice – they do. But who still really wants to hear it at this point? It’s a rare instance – as with the lovely “Bird on a Wire” and closing “So Long, Marianne” – of Cohen’s superbly subtle and articulate lyrics washing over the listener to the point of meaninglessness, rather than catching the ear as they do elsewhere.

Still, these are only quibbles. If the idea of a group of people performing passionate, melodic versions of Leonard Cohen songs and dramatic readings of his prose appeals, it’s hard to imagine it being done better than this. If you prefer the man himself, at his most bare and skeletal, then this probably isn’t for you, but it’s still worth a look. In the end, Who by Fire may be an album that’s first and foremost for First Aid Kit, rather than Cohen fans, but it leaves the listener in no doubt that as a show, it was outstanding.

The Söderberg sisters and friends give Leonard Cohen’s intimate and minimalist songs a lavish showbiz makeover; but more often than not, it works.
72 %
Wide-ranging tribute to a master

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