Their two voices merging as one, Sweden’s Soderberg sisters, Klara and Johanna, first mesmerised back in 2008 when their cover of Fleet Foxes’ Tiger Mountain Peasant Song became a YouTube sensation. The following year they released the Drunken Trees EP, gathering a sheaf of inevitable female Fleet Foxes comparisons, and, in 2010, confirmed their arrival on the international roots music scene with The Big Black & The Blue, a debut album crammed with songs about emotional repression, broken relationships and hard lives, veining their Scandinavian mordancy with shafts of light and hope.
Sophomore release, The Lion’s Roar, proved their breakthrough, taking the debut’s Appalachian campfire blueprint and building upon it with the addition of a full band, not to mention guest appearances by the Felice Brothers and Conor Oberst. As well as earning them a bigger fanbase, it also secured them a major label deal, of which this is the first fruit.
With Mike Moggis again on production duties (and assorted instruments) and his Bright Eyes colleague, Nat Walcott, on various keyboards, the sisters have taken advantage of a bigger recording budget to expand the sound through contributions by The Omaha Symphony Orchestra (the album was recorded in Omaha), offering fuller arrangements and brighter dynamics, while, conversely, the lyrics have become more intimate and personal, an outcrop of their experiences over the past few years.
Uncertainty is a running theme, getting an early showing with rolling opening track, Silver Lining, where, backdropped by a string arrangement straight out of some Western with the girls oohing like desert coyotes, they sing “I don’t know if I’m scared of dying but I’m scared of living too” and how they’ve “woken up in a hotel room… worries as big as the moon”. And yet, this crisis of certainty is counterbalanced with a declaration that “ I will not take the easy road” and a chorus where they determine to “keep on keeping on”.
Likewise, refusal to be crushed by ‘bad luck” is also there on the rippling Master Pretender with its jazzy woodwinds (and a couple of pragmatic expletives), putting on a brave face as they sing “I’m back again”, “I’ll stick around” and how “time has told me it can’t be that bad, and if it is, well, I’ll be goddamned.”
To a tumbling drum rhythm, the title track asks “what if to love and be loved’s not enough, what if I fall and can’t bear to get up” and, capturing every artist’s fears, “what if our hard work ends in despair”. But while they may sing “I wish for once we could stay gold”, they’re well aware that that way stasis and stagnation lies, that you have to take chances in order to move on.
Thus, on the pace-gathering Shattered & Hollow, whatever the emotional cost, they’d “rather be moving than static”, the resolve to escape stronger than the comfort of remaining in a broken familiar. The same holds true of Waitress Song, a soaring swirl where Klara sings “I could move to a small town and become a waitress. Say my name was Stacy and I was figuring things out” while referencing Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun.
Not that there aren’t times when it all feels too overwhelming. The country waltzing Cedar Lane reflects on a lost past and unfulfilled promises and how “my world’s an empty map and nothing remains” while on the gathering swell of The Bell “the world is an empty frame” with everything “coming to an ending”. With lost and broken relationships an almost constant presence, it’s as though being alone is the price to be paid in chasing success, where, with “nothing to offer you”, they sing that lovers become “just a name” and, on the folksy fingerpicked and woodwind swept Fleeting One, that “my man could be anyone”.
Almost inevitably, all of this plays havoc with your sense of who you are and self-questioning runs through several numbers, reaching a climax in the rumbustious Heaven Knows, a yeehaw mandolin twangy stomp n shuffle as the duo sing “you’ve spent a year staring into a mirror, another one trying to figure out what you saw, paid so much attention to what you’re not you have no idea who you are” and, tellingly, “you’ve lost yourself in others’ expectations of you”.
As if this was the catharsis towards which it was heading, the album then closes on the melancholically wistful A Long Time Ago, a song about trying to balance wants, needs as, to fragile strings and sparse piano, Klara sings “I was the one you counted on, but I was never the one for you”, confessing the poignantly sad acknowledgement that “now I know, I lost you a long time ago”.
And yet, for all the hurt and tears, the line “I hold no grudges, I come bearing forgiveness, only love, only love, even if it’s not enough” ends things on a note of serenity, grace and acceptance. Their success may have come at a personal cost, but the wreckage is a work of heartfelt beauty.
Review by: Mike Davies
Released on Columbia Records, out now