The Civil Wars: The Civil Wars
Turmoil is the breeding ground for great music, providing listeners access to a relationship on the brink of disaster. The Civil Wars’ self-titled sophomore album feels nothing short of pressing an ear against the door and eavesdropping on two parents who can no longer mask the divide growing between them.
John Paul White and Joy Williams were surprisingly honest in telling the world that “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition” caused the collapse of the remarkable neo-folk duo. The new album, which is as portentous and smoky as its cover, almost breaks under the weight of the pain and angst that drove White and Williams apart. As is expected from the Nashville duo, each song is delicately and meticulously orchestrated with Williams’ pure, angelic voice being the dominant force breaking through the dark clouds that hover over the new release. Where Barton Hollow encapsulated the promise of something inspiring, The Civil Wars is the result of that promise being broken.
While lacking the “Poison and Wine” or “Barton Hollow” that made their debut effort instantly memorable, The Civil Wars is more consistent and showcases a maturity in lyricism and composition. Striking harmonies and an ominous country twang marks the opener, “The One That Got Away,” about wishing a relationship that ended so poorly never began. Graceful and somber, “Dust to Dust” hints to the issues that served as the demise of the band. (“Oh, you’re acting your thin disguise, all your perfectly delivered lines/They don’t fool me, you’ve been lonely, too long.”)
Electric guitars scratch through the Rick Rubin- and Charlie Peacock-produced “I Had Me a Girl,” the most dynamic and forceful song on the album. “From This Valley” and “Oh Henry” are the closest remnants to the duo’s livelier early work with charming, infectious choruses, foot-stomping paces, and lush harmonies.
Always gravitated toward covering songs you’d rarely expect from a folk-rock duo, this time is no different with a fragile, warming version of Etta James’ “Tell Mama” and the collection’s weakest link in an unfocused, drawn out cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm.” Disregarding this one misstep, The Civil Wars is elegantly but heartbreakingly crafted and proves that, even when their relationship is at its worst, as long as White and Williams are together, they are at their best.