Indie-folk duo First Aid Kit released Who by Fire on Friday, a live tribute album to the late Leonard Cohen, containing a series of covers recorded around the time of his death in 2016.
The sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg said in a statement they posted on the First Aid Kit Twitter in 2016 that they were captivated by Cohen’s music. Cohen’s death hit the sisters hard, but also inspired them to honor his memory at a concert in Stockholm several months later. Videos of this performance have floated around the internet for years, captivating First Aid Kit listeners.
First Aid Kit has finally released the live album on streaming services and a beautiful blue vinyl almost four years later. It’s a wonderful combination of Cohen’s masterful songwriting and the musical talent of the people he inspired, including the duo and the other artists featured on the album. It even includes recitations of several of Cohen’s poems including “Tired” and “Prayer for Messiah.” This performance is as close to perfect as you can get, making it the ultimate tribute to Cohen’s legacy.
“The Asthmatic” is one example of the justice paid to Cohen’s work on the album. Swedish actresses Nina Zanjani and Maia Hansson-Bergqvist recite the poem along with the sisters, their lines overlapping with each other. The cacophony of the women’s voices repeating “you cannot breathe” over each other gives the performance an unparalleled feeling of anxiety. In an album rife with beautifully soft vocals, it’s a memorable standout that brings one of Cohen’s best works to life.
According to the Söderberg sisters, the single they released to promote the performance, “Suzanne,” is one of the most important songs to the duo. In their original tweet after Cohen’s death, the sisters said, “If you ever put a guitar in our hands and ask us to sing, we will always play ‘Suzanne.'”
Their performance for this track displays that devotion perfectly. The sisters’ haunting harmonies on this track are one of the many high points of this album, and the emotion is palpable. Between Cohen’s lyricism and First Aid Kit’s performance, there isn’t a thing to change that could make this track better.
The sisters also include collaborations with several talented but small Swedish artists. Although Loney Dear’s performance on “Avalanche” is paired with sparse instrumentals, the performance builds in momentum with his powerful vocals, leaving you wanting more of him. Notably, his vocalism between the second and third verses is emotional and powerful in a way that not many others could match. Jesper Lindell’s soft voice shows up on both “Chelsea Hotel #2” and “Show Me the Place,” and his vocals meld perfectly with the sisters’ harmonies. Including these smaller artists leaves the album feeling much more personal. It emphasizes the fact that Cohen inspired countless people to perform and write music. The Söderberg sisters’ decision to bring every collaborator back for “So Long, Marianne” also gives the performance a sense of finality and catharsis as the album approaches its end.
Ending the album on Cohen’s poem “You’d Sing Too” sums up what this live performance is about. The lines “You wouldn’t worry about / Whether you were as good / As Ray Charles or Edith Piaf” emphasize how inspirational Cohen was for many people. The performance is filled with some of the people who were encouraged by Cohen to express themselves through art. By ending on this poem, First Aid Kit continues to spread that message for all the people still afraid to follow through on their passions.
This performance is a perfect tribute to who Cohen was and what he represented to so many people. It’s very clear that First Aid Kit devoted time, love, and effort into making sure that this performance honored Cohen’s legacy. That effort along with the sisters’ willingness to bring Cohen’s poetry into the performance allowed them to capture so much of what made the musician great. Even people who have never listened to Cohen will find a new appreciation for the man in First Aid Kit’s performance. Who by Fire memorializes Cohen as the Söderberg sisters perform one of the best performances of the last decade.
Photo Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment