First Aid Kit: Who by Fire

For two nights in March of 2017, First Aid Kit, the Swedish sister duo of Johanna and Klara Söderberg, were joined at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm by a collection of fellow Swedish guest artists, an eight person band and strings, two actors, as well as a twenty plus person choir. Swedish TV SVT2 broadcast parts of the show in October 2017; live album Who by Fire contains unedited performances from the show; with “the flaws” as part of the live experience (according to the Söderberg sisters).

There may be a few imperfections here and there, but they are hardly noticeable due to the strong performances. The show is a mix of song and spoken word thoughtfully mixed together, and there is a sense of drama as a result. “Who by Fire” is a standout, with First Aid Kit joined by Nina Zanjani and Maia Hansson-Bergqvist; the first version is inventively interwoven with spoken word sections from “As The Mist Leaves No Scar”, and it’s later reprised, slowed down to almost a mystical chant, and again  interposed with spoken word (“Letter to Marianne”).

This album may come as a surprise to those tuned in to First Aid Kit’s particular vocal sound, as here they often sing with others. “Everybody Knows” is sung in defiant harmony with Frida Hyvönen. “Sisters of Mercy” shows the power of four female voices when Johanna and Klara are joined again by Zanjani and Hansson-Bergqvist; the choir compliments the four for an impressive “You Want It Darker”, and “So Long Marianne” is emotively sung together by all the vocalists. Those who are keen to hear First Aid Kit on their own are also rewarded with an acapella version of “Bird on the Wire”; they also unleash their incredible full vocal power on “If It Be Your Will” and expertly harmonise on “Suzanne”.

The Swedish often speak better English than the English themselves, and this recording certainly demonstrates a keen sensitivity to language. “The Asthmatic” and “The Future”, with Zanjani, Hansson-Bergqvist and First Aid Kit, work particularly well with four mixing voices. “Prayer for Messiah”, read by Klara Söderberg, is as solemn as being in church. “Tired”, a poem from Cohen’s Book of Longing, is set to atmospheric music. Johanna Söderberg’s reading is appropriately sonorous on “You’d Sing Too”.

First Aid Kit are a successful international act, and here they shine some light on fellow Swedish artists who are perhaps well less known outside of their home country. Loney Dear, the pseudonym of Swedish singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Emil Svanängen, turns in a dark and brooding “Avalanche”; Jesper Lindell provides melancholic renditions of “Chelsea Hotel” and “Show Me The Place”. A hundred and one artists have covered “Hallelujah” over the years; Annika Norlin’s version is a slow build from fragility. “Famous Blue Raincoat”, made well known by Jennifer Warnes, is admirably sing by Maja Francis, at times sounding like Kate Bush. First Aid Kit frequently provide supportive backing on these other performer’s songs without stealing their thunder.

These shows were certainly an ambitious project, and were much more than just a live run-through of Cohen’s songs. There is a good selection from Cohen’s albums across the years from the ‘60s to his later work. The classics are fearlessly interpreted, and the poetry readings are well executed. There is a real sense of this as a live album, with the atmosphere of the performances translating to audio. With its’ deep knowledge of and love for Cohen’s work, Who by Fire hits all the right notes.

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Label: Columbia
Release Date: 26 MAR 2021