Tuesday, April 06, 2021

First Aid Kit pay tribute to Leonard Cohen with new album Who By Fire

Swedish sisters First Aid Kit are back with the release of their live album Who By Fire, a tribute to the late songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen. The duo has previously stated how much of an influence Cohen has been on their own musical work, calling him “a guiding light”. 

Following Cohen’s death in 2016, the sisters performed this collection of Cohen’s songs and poetry live in Stockholm in 2017, deciding to finally release the performance as a live album in 2021. Despite it being “something out of the ordinary” for them to do, they had enjoyed the “challenge” of creating a performance-based around another person’s work. 

The opening track is a poem of Cohen’s called ‘Tired’, with one line, in particular, seeming to set the tone for the whole album – “we’re going to be voices now, disembodied voices in the blue sky”. A quick glance at the cover art for this album shows First Aid Kit bathed in blue light, also a recurring theme during their live performance. The way their voices meld together to perform this poem is eerie – not entirely unpleasant but not comforting either. Add to this the prominent vibraphone – the main instrumental accompaniment – and it sets the perfect atmosphere for the start of a tribute.

The track that follows is probably one of Cohen’s most famous pieces, the poem-turned-love song ‘Suzanne’. Whilst the vibraphone remains, the addition of an acoustic guitar in the introduction feels more light-hearted, moving away from the somber tone of the album’s opener. It introduces a nice, warm atmosphere to the album, which is a welcome relief, considering a tribute has the potential to be quite morbid; it seems like First Aid Kit have got the balance just right with this addition. The sisters’ folky twang, lush harmonies, and vocal flips are quintessential First Aid Kit, making it feels like a real homage to Cohen, rather than mimicry.

Alongside one another, these two songs demonstrate perfectly what the album and the original performance set out to achieve – they express the sadness of Cohen’s passing whilst also celebrating the art that he left behind. First Aid Kit said themselves, that “in the midst of this sadness, we are so intensely grateful” – and that love and admiration they have for Cohen and his work undoubtedly come across. The album’s title track ‘Who By Fire’ is mixed with ‘As The Mist Leaves No Scar’ and in this one track First Aid Kit encapsulates their whole emotional range. The track is upbeat and dramatic, featuring strings (including a pizzicato section) and percussion, making it feels like a celebration. However, a look at Cohen’s lyrics shows they are singing about death, again exhibiting their happiness and their sorrow at once.

This album is a beautiful reimagining of Cohen’s work and First Aid Kit manage to perfectly capture the essence of it whilst remaining authentic to the original. It can be enjoyed by both Cohen and First Aid Kit fans alike, which is a true testament to how well they have pulled off this feat. It is also wonderful to listen to a live album at a time when it hasn’t been possible to go and see performances in person; my only wish is that they could have perhaps captured more of the audience’s reaction.

Ellie Insley


Image: https://www.facebook.com/64344580964/photos/pb.100044246118435.-2207520000../10157876283685965/?type=3 Official Single Cover

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