Tribute albums can be hit and miss. At times it just feels like corporate cash in milk some more money out of an artist back catalogue. Then there are the ones that are generally incredible. Leonard Cohen has a fantastic DVD/live album ‘I’m Your Man’ where self-identified super fans Nick Cave, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Beth Orton, Jarvis Cocker, Perla Batalla, Anohni - to name a few - performed his music in an evening of celebration. It’s a tough act to follow.
Yet Klara and Johanna Söderberg, First Aid Kit, decided in 2017 to do just that. The concert took place four months after Cohen passed away, and you can hear the emotion in their voices throughout. ‘Who By Fire’ feels like an album they had to make, rather than something that felt like a good idea at the time.
What makes ‘Who by Fire’ such a delightful listen is that all the usual suspects are there, but so are a few hidden gems too. The album starts with ‘Tired’. This is a reading of one of Cohen’s poems from 2006’s The Book Of Longing. ‘Tired’ stuck a chord with me at the time as it was one of the first times, I’d heard Cohen angry. Normally he was reflective, and morose, but this time he’d had enough. You can get that with Nina Zanjani and Maia Hansson-Bergqvist’s readings. You can feel the bile rising as they utter each word.
Breaking up the album with spoken word performances is a great touch as Cohen’s poetry, and novels, have largely been swept aside in favour of the songs. Which is a shame. ‘Death Of A Lady’s Man’ and ‘Spice Box Of Earth’ helped me through bad times as much as his music did. Musically ‘Tired’ is sparse. Light chimes welcome us, but as ‘Tired’ progresses the instrumentation gets more pronounced. Motifs from ‘Who by Fire’ and ‘Suzanne’ start to make themselves known. It is no surprise when the Söderberg sisters launch into ‘Suzanne’. A big part of First Aid Kit’s appeal has been those harmonies. On ‘Suzanne’ they just sound incredible.
One of the standout moments on the album is ‘Avalanche’. This is probably my favourite Cohen song, and one that feels overlooked in his canon. I first heard it heartbroken and hungover, and it’s always resonated. What is clever here, is that it isn’t represented as it was originally. Instead, it’s a piano lead ballad, which features Lonely Dear on vocals, that grows in intensity with every note. While this is a flawless cover, I was slightly disappointed that the Söderberg’s didn’t tackle it themselves or make it a duet. However, after repeat listens it makes sense and adds another texture to the album. As the album progresses the Söderberg’s grow in confidence and by the time we hit ‘Bird On A Wire’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’ they are firing on all cylinders.
What ‘Who by Fire’ does incredibly well is not just present us with a carbon copy of the original songs. Instead, it adds the Söderberg’s stamp on them. These aren’t covers but reinterpretations. While I know the words, and melodies, these versions sound as fresh and exciting as when I first heard them. This album will delight both fans of Cohen and First Aid Kit, but if you are new to either, it works as a delightful introduction.
Words: Nick Roseblade
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