It’s 9:13 p.m. as I’m writing this, and something just crashed in the kids’ bedroom. A few minutes ago, a small face poked out from the entrance to the living room asking for another sip of water. My wife and I are decades from being empty nesters, but even on weary nights like these I can’t imagine the stillness of a home where all of the kids have moved out. Because when they do, a piece of me is going with them.
It’s scary to love someone so much. I think that’s why I connected with the latest album from sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg of First Aid Kit. On Ruins, their fourth studio release, the Swedish duo explores the cost of relationships. Tennyson may have said, “Tis’ better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all,” but Ruins is an album for those of us still hurting from the losses.
The record opens with a riff in a holding pattern, as Klara asserts, “You told me once I have a rebel heart.” She’s in the middle of a break-up. In desperation she pleads, “Did I misplace or forsake my love / Now that I gave it to you?” This rebel heart rejects the narrative that people can fall in and out of love without consequences. There is no clean way to end a relationship. She’s not going to pretend that people can plug and unplug from one another like pieces of plastic: “I know you truly saw me / Even if just for a while / Maybe that’s why it hurts now / To leave it all behind.”
The rest of the album unfolds like rose petals tinged with nostalgia and sorrow. At times, First Aid Kit tries to laugh off the pain. On “Postcard,” over jangly keys and the sigh of a dobro, Söderberg sardonically croons, “Send me a postcard when you get to where you’re going / Send me a line to everything you left behind.” On “Distant Star,” the duo gazes into the night sky and sees a constellation of relationships slipping away: “Hold on to whatever you can until it’s gone / Carry on, for none of us will be here for too long.”
Ruins is an album for those of us still hurting from losses.
Perhaps the worst part is that as relationships grow distant, doubts cloud our memory. Were those feelings ever real? Maybe the emotion, the sense of belonging, the fellowship we remember is as false as the glow of long-extinct stars: “There's nothing there but the illusion of a light.” This theme can also be found in the title track, a delicate harmony reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel. Anyone who’s lost someone they love knows the feeling of riffling through a box of mementos: “Ruins, all the things we built assured that they would last / Standing amongst ticket stubs and written notes and photographs.” Sadly, these ruins are only reminders of something cemented in the past: “And where are you in here? / Somewhere I cannot go...” Longing for communion, we cling to pieces of paper and scraps of garbage because they connect us to people, places, and memories to which we can never return.
The album finishes with “Nothing Has to Be True,” a response to the disingenuous chiding of friends: “They say, ‘Why do you love those who turn you into a fool? / Why do you let them get to you? / You should have been running, when you chose to stay.’” Rather than giving a direct answer, the Söderberg sisters summon every instrument on the album in an explosive outro that reaches into the depths of the heart, as if to say, “Deny it all you want, but I know the ache is in you, too. Can’t you feel it?”
There’s an iconic scene at the end of Jesus’ life where he gathers his disciples around the table for a meal. It’s a strange meal. He takes bread, gives thanks, and breaks it. Then he offers it to his disciples and says, “This is my body which is given for you.” In that moment, he showed us what true communion requires. We have to be willing to give away our very selves. Relationships that are broken—whether through death, a break-up, divorce, or distance—hurt so much because some part of us was joined to the person we lost. Klara puts her finger on the problem in “Rebel Heart:” “I want to give so much so freely, not have to take it back.” As people made in the image of God, we are created with a hunger to be in relationship with others. Inevitably, this is going to lead to deep loss and pain in a world of sin and death.
I’ve performed more than my fair share of funerals in the past few years; the hardest part is writing the eulogy. How do you even begin to sum up a person’s humanity? On “Hem of Her Dress,” First Aid Kit scoffs at the notion: “You tried to pinpoint me / I guess that was your mistake.” However, when I sit with families and listen, they talk about how they were shaped by their relationship with the one they lost. In our worst moments, we are all tempted to come to the same conclusion as “Rebel Heart”: “Nothing matters, all is futile.” I think the picture at the Lord’s Supper, however, shows us that true communion is never a waste, never futile.
We become the people we are in the little ways we give ourselves away. As we look back, we don’t have to see a landscape scattered with ruins, but with ebenezers—stone stacks reminding us of relationships and experiences that God graciously used to draw us deeper into communion with him. Because our God has given himself to us, we brave the certain loss and risk, the inevitable heartache, of giving ourselves away to others.