In 1966, Simon and Garfunkel released a song called The Dangling Conversation, which later that year would be included in their highly successful album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. In this song they depicted a fading love story and the agony of two lovers who knew the end was getting closer. One of my favorite lines in this song is “And you read your Emily Dickenson and I my Robert Frost,” which describes how far away they were from each other. Almost 48 years later, First Aid Kit has just released their third album titled “Stay Gold”, inspired by Robert Frost’s poem Nothing Gold Can Stay, and I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe it was through this Simon and Garfunkel song that they first heard of Robert Frost, and later on came across this poem. Plus I love the fact that they used a poem as inspiration because it shows that intertextuality is an important part of their music and their lives, just as it was for Simon and Garfunkel and many timeless poets and musicians. It is indeed through fiction that stories become real…
“Stay Gold” is made up of ten beautiful songs that are connected to one another at so many levels, and I believe this shows the girls have developed more character and self-awareness. The main theme of this new album, what seems to be keeping them (and myself) awake at night, is the inevitableness in life. And though this is something that Johanna and Klara have explored before, the level of honesty and depth shown in this album can’t be compared to anything they have previously written. Behind this feeling of unavoidability though, always lies a sense of hope. Their name is First Aid Kit after all, so despite the fact that at times they flirt with life’s ambivalences, these girls are indeed two helpless optimists coming to rescue you.
While their search for hope in the midst of deception is clearly shown in My Silver Lining, it is in the song Stay Gold that we see more in detail how they use their own collection of thoughts and fears to process how ambivalent life can be at times. How can we enjoy something that we know it’s going to end? And why was the album titled “Stay Gold” if nothing really does? Well, actually, I believe this to be the most interest point of the record because it is one of the main challenges we must face in life: How to cope with loss and disappointment and still remain positive and hopeful. “So dawn goes down today, nothing gold can stay,” reads the poem by Frost, and their lyrics reflect upon this part too coming to the conclusion that, even if it all does go wrong in the end, it is always worth taking the risk and hoping for the best. So staying gold it is, folks!
It is not a coincidence that Cedar Lane comes after Stay Gold, because their fear of things not working out is actually confirmed in this story. Cedar Lane is a stream of thoughts portraying a past relationship that was destined for misfortune. This is the To a Poet of the album, and I even dare to say it involves the same two people. Cedar Lane picks up the idea of only finding peace and comfort in the past. The way in which this love story is described –the clear images of happiness when they are together and that feeling of nothingness when they are apart– is overwhelmingly moving. Now that it’s all over, this young woman is left to face everything that she can neither control nor let go. That is why she needs to convince herself that “Something good will come out of this,” because that is the only thing she can hold on to. Bottom line, this song should never not be on repeat.
The album also has fast-paced and cheerful songs like Waitress Song and Heaven Knows, but it was Fleeting One –track eight of the album– that really caught my attention due to its flute-ish arrangements and its lyrics. This song is beautifully heartbreaking and this is something that I love about the band: The fact that it is impossible not to perceive sorrow and nostalgia as something beautiful, partly because of their stunning melodies, but also thanks to their sharp phrasing and honest lyrics. “Our love is a setting sun,” they sing agonizingly and again this love story was never meant to work out, because the lead character doesn’t know who she is, and therefore she can’t convey any sense of permanence. Plus, this parallelism between love and life being fleeting and a setting sun is simply brilliant and works so well for this story, in which it feels like the end was almost as comforting as the beginning.
A Long Time Ago is definitely the ballad of the record and it is completely different from everything we have heard before: A full orchestra with Klara leading the melody and Johanna singing the backup vocals creating this unique dissonant sound that only they know how to handle so brilliantly. “Wow” is not a good enough interjection for this song. If there is something that we learn from this story is that one-sided love never lasts. And similar to Waltz for Richard, what is hurting this girl the most is that she wasn’t enough. “I come bearing forgiveness and only love, only love, even if it’s not enough…” The fact that she’s able to look back on the relationship in a longing but rational way shows a level of self-awareness only achievable through thorough thinking and acceptance: Life is as much about winning as it is about losing.
“(…) we are verses out of rhythm, couplets out of rhyme in syncopated time. And the dangling conversation and the superficial sighs are the borders of our lives,” sing Simon and Garfunkel in The Dangling Conversation, and I believe First Aid Kit has taken this statement very seriously in their music and in their poetry. They don’t want to go unnoticed, but they don’t want to lose themselves in others expectations of them either. Their message is loud and clear and, altogether, “Stay Gold” is an invitation to explore the journey of two young women as they trace their own paths. Their stories are a manual guide on how to cope with life’s ambivalences –“I’m in love and I’m lost,” they sing in Shattered & Hollow– and how to face what’s inevitable without becoming cynic or bitter –“I just keep on keeping on,” they say in My Silver Lining. But most importantly, the message is not to dwell on fears and resignation. Even if you have yearning soul, you must never give up chasing the sun.
With minds so bold and thoughts so clear, Johanna and Klara have become the ambassadors of modern folk music and my personal and emotional first aid kit. And I’m sure many years from now, I will be able to tell my kids that I witnessed how they changed the face of music and my generation, just like my father did when he would tell me all about Simon and Garfunkel. Surely not all gold can stay, but this album could definitely become the exception.
Thanks for the read!
Note: In case you want to read my crazy but awesome analogy between First Aid Kit and Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar, you are more than welcome to do it here. xx