The thing one has to accept with a duo like First Aid Kit is that they take a long time in between projects, and it’s often to expand or grow their established foundation spanning across folk, pop, and country. And I think they’re one of the few acts that can take time away and come back with something strong, given that they’ve gotten better at refining their template with nearly release. Even the more restrained, breakup-heavy release of 2018’s Ruins – which followed the sweeping, gorgeous highs of 2014’s Stay Gold – still managed to win me over, thanks to a heavier dramatic focus in the overall lyrics and themes; still beautiful, but devastating, and one I’ll go to bat for as an underrated gem.
But I’ve also always considered that a transitional effort above all else – one that I didn’t think would come attached with yet another four-year wait for the next project, but here we are. And indeed, new album Palomino is the expected next step back toward the brighter, sweeping textures that characterized Stay Gold … but pinning down why it doesn’t click with me to the same degree as their last three efforts has been tricky to articulate. After all, that foundation I mentioned earlier is still very much intact: Klara and Johanna Södenburg still have the lovely, crystalline, old-school texture to their deliveries to work separately and especially together through their harmonies; the album generally plays to a very warm smattering of the typical influences one would expect from them, this time around with a heavier focus on ‘70s soft-rock and pop influences; and in terms of their melodic compositions and hooks, I could say this is arguably their grandest and catchiest artistic statement yet.
But it’s also one of those projects where a solid foundation can’t follow through with a more interesting execution, as while I wouldn’t say the production is inherently bad – outside of some weird, self-gratuitous synth-driven choices on “Angel” and “29 Palms Highway” that don’t work for an album trying to be warmer and sunnier in overall tone – I’d also struggle to say it captures the same shimmering highs, personality, or expressiveness of their previous work. It reminds me a lot of Courtney Marie Andrews’ Loose Future, another recent project about finding the light after traveling through the darkness set on a previous project, but also one that’s a bit too disconnected and flighty to crawl its way back.
And I think that also reflects why the writing isn’t clicking with me as strongly this time around. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a duo one goes to for direct songwriting, and I’ve found beauty through their abstract metaphors and looser details before. But I think coming off an intense project like Ruins I expected a bit more meat to the actual redemptive arc. As it is, we get a cut like “Angel,” where I like the overall sentiments regarding body positivity but find it cloying otherwise. To be fair, calling this an album focused only on shying away from the darkness wouldn’t be fair to what the duo is trying to accomplish here, given that there are still plenty of moments of doubt and uncertainty regarding their next steps in the wake of further stumbles, mostly through more bad bouts with love. So it makes the angsty, restless, and scattershot (in a mostly good way) nature of this project feel more intentional than anything else, and it also supports the album’s often more playful bass grooves. “Out Of My Head” is a great opener alone in that regard, a yearning for personal freedom that’s melodic as hell and great at establishing the desired tone for this project sonically and lyrically.
But I don’t know. Given that this is actually a fairly common arc I’ve heard explored through other projects in 2022 following a chaotic last few years, I’m not sure extremely strong melodic chops and hooks are enough to make up for writing that can feel a bit too broadly sketched to anchor in some of the finer details. Take “Wild Horses II,” for example, a low-key, beautiful (if by-the-numbers) folk ballad reminiscing on a past relationship and, to be fair, very specific events two partners shared together, but also one where the inevitable end of it just comes and goes without much in the way of deeper impact. And while I love the dark, rich, smoky strings and reverb characterizing the decidedly old-school-sounding “Nobody Knows,” it seems like an oddly weird fit for a love song – one that can get somewhat repetitive by its end, at that.
Maybe it’s just a case of the project feeling a bit too indebted to the influences rather than an already established, more unique foundation, but for as overall beautiful as this album sounds, it lacks the impact and swell of the duo’s earlier work. With that said, I do want to stress that I think this is still pretty good overall, if only for moments like the aforementioned “Out Of My Head,” the shimmering piano work anchoring “Ready to Run,” the jumpy groove and fiddle interplay of “Fallen Snow” – even if I wish said fiddle was mixed a little higher overall – the equally jumpy kick of “A Feeling That Never Came,” and the absolutely stunning closing title track. But following two albums I’d classify as easy favorites of the last decade, I will say this isn’t quite the glorious, soaring comeback I had hoped it would be.
- Favorite tracks: “Palomino,” “Out Of My Head,” “Fallen Snow,” “A Feeling That Never Came,” “Ready to Run”
- Least favorite track: “Turning Onto You”