In Brief: I didn’t even expect to get a second album from The Civil Wars, much less one as exquisite as their first. I can only hope it’s not their last.
Have you ever been friends with a couple whose relationship was slowly falling apart? Maybe you were the go-between listening to their complaints about each other and trying to help them work through their problems, or maybe you were just an observer who couldn’t help the pain of them both suffering in silence. But either way, when the end came, it hurt a bit, because you felt like you were invested in their relationship in some way. This situation can be especially infuriating if the couple is one of those volatile, one-again-off-again ones who can’t seem to make up their minds. And as awkward as the breakup(s) may be, it’s somehow more awkward to look back at the old photos you have of them on your Facebook wall, or the seemingly harmless jokes they told at each other’s expense that now reveal a layer of hidden animosity. You find yourself wishing you could all just go back to a moment in time where they were happy together, and hang on to that moment forever.
That’s how I feel about The Civil Wars with the release of their second, and possibly final, album. They are like the musical equivalent of one of those doomed couples. Now, as I made sure to clarify when reviewing their excellent debut Barton Hollow, Joy Williams and John Paul White are/were musical partners, not romantic ones. Both are married to other people. But out of their unlikely musical partnership, a great number of love songs were born – only a few of them happy, with many more of them forlorn and lonely, either lamenting relationships gone bad or wanting out of them after they went stale, if not outright trading barbs with one another over the frustrations of a contentious partnership. I viewed them as playful “frenemies” at the time, figuring it was a catalyst for strong material. Hearing those two voices together, often paired with little more than John Paul’s acoustic guitar and one or two other folksy instruments, it felt like a match made in heaven, despite any reports of strife behind the scenes. But the tension between the two apparently came to a head last fall when they abruptly decided to quit touring. I figured it was completely over between them at that point, so imagine my confusion when they announced the release of a new, self-titled album this summer, but still maintained that the duo was on “hiatus”. I’ve made many a sarcastic comment about this “hiatus” of theirs, but let’s be fair. This album, cut in September of 2012 but only just released in August of 2013, is one more than I figured I’d get from them. It’s a veritable bonus round from a band that could have gone out on a high note even if their debut had been the end of their discography. And my heart aches at times when I listen to it, because it crackles with the raw emotion of their creative dissonance while never once failing to make the two sound absolutely stellar together. Knowing that it could be the end for The Civil Wars only heightens that heartbroken response.
Somewhat miraculously, considering that it nearly amounts to a posthumous release for a duo no longer on speaking terms, The Civil Wars doesn’t come across as a mishmash or a cheap attempt to cobble together half-finished song ideas and substitute other players for core members who no longer wanted to be involved. Joy and John Paul are fully present on all twelve of these tracks, having co-written ten of them together. The other two are unusual but worthwhile cover choices – one from soul singer Etta James, one from alternative rock heavyweights The Smashing Pumpkins. Anyone who has ever seen them live can attest to their ability to reimagine songs from disparate genres as stark Americana. Their voices meld gorgeously, John Paul’s worldly Southern twang melting into Joy’s more sweet-and-innocent tones, which can seem like an odd fit at first, but the bad-boy-good-girl dynamic works wonders, especially when either vocal performance defies the stereotype. Producer Charlie Peacock took the helm once again, giving the album the same crystal clear quality that he did the last time around, this time taking on elements of sound that add both dirt and pop polish to different songs, all without making any of it feel inauthentic (save for maybe one track which I’ll get to soon enough). He also served as mediator as communication between the two began to break down, if I understand the lore surrounding this album correctly. Mad respect for that, because who knows, under some other producer’s watch, this album could have unraveled at the seams before it was even half finished.
Purists who enjoyed Barton Hollow may be startled to hear some of the experiments on this album. None are complete out-of-genre experiences for the duo, but they stretch their wings carefully with a few electric guitar-driven tracks, one that uses a drum machine, the aforementioned covers, a sort of Gospel song, a tender ballad sung in French, and even a tune recorded on an iPhone that was deliberately left in “demo quality” just to end things on an incredibly bittersweet note. This is a sophomore album that hints at being the tip of the iceberg in terms of artistic potential – a truly excellent collection of songs from two singer/songwriters who I can easily believe have a lot more good stuff where that came from. It’s not a clone of Barton Hollow – and those who found that album too mellow may appreciate the more varied textures and tempos here. Expectations were so huge after Barton Hollow that I honestly wasn’t sure how lightning could strike twice for Joy and John Paul, but I think it’s definitely struck here, and started a fire, leading to the foreboding cloud of black smoke seen on the cover. If the Union remains forever divided after this, that’ll be a shame, but if the reconciliation that Joy remains hopeful for actually happens, then they’ll have a mighty tough act to follow on their third album, which I’m going to tentatively title Reconstruction, because wouldn’t that be appropriate?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get into the meat and bones of the 12 new songs I never even thought we’d get, and savor this meal as though it were our last.
1. The One that Got Away
This may be a bit presumptuous to say, but this is one of those rare songs that I had such a strong gut feeling about the first time I heard it, I knew it was likely to become the duo’s new signature song. I mean no respect to “Poison & Wine”, which seems to have garnered the lion’s share of attention on their debut album. It’s a great song. But something about this one, with its surprising mix of the expected Americana twang and the very unexpected electric guitar grit, really hits you where it hurts. Barton Hollow opened with “20 Years”, a song all about reconciliation, and this one is quite the opposite, because it finds a couple still together, but secretly wishing in both of their minds that they had let the other person go a long time ago. There’s a never-ending list of songs out there that pine for the one that got away, but there are very few songs capable of articulating the uneasy realization that sometimes wanting is better than having. Sometimes knowing that other person is head over heels for you, and playing hard to get, or being the one played with, is in its own strange way more satisfying than having the embers of a romance finally realized cool to the point where it’s just a dull routine. To hear Joy crooning in her dulcet tones, “I wish you were the one that got away”, and even something so blunt as “I wish I’d never, ever seen your face”, is just brutal. It’s at once delightful and cruel, how powerfully the two voices band together in singing this anthem of separation. And even though I don’t assume that these songs, on the surface, are written about Joy and John’s own lives, there had been more than enough speed bumps in their working relationship at this point that it bleeds over into the performance. Two people in conflict have never sounded so paradoxically perfect together.
2. I Had Me a Girl
The muddy electric guitar that was an important rhythmic instrument in the previous song becomes the lead one here, its raggedy, knife-edged sound syncing up with John Paul’s already aggressive acoustic to create the most startling song on the album. Given the guy’s name, I have to wonder if this song has prompted anyone to ask him whether he and Jack White are related. (And if you think The Civil Wars have an effed up relationship, try divorcing someone and then performing in a band with them while telling everyone you’re siblings!) Not that I mean to compare this song to The White Stripes for any other reason – it’s just where my mind goes when I hear a messy and sort-of-bluesy electric guitar performance. The pace here isn’t as fast and furious as that of “Barton Hollow”, but the song plays a similarly edgy role compared to the rest of the album, finding both John Paul and Joy at their vocal best as they take turns reminiscing and raging about being loved and left by a girl/boy who could teach them how to pray one minute and then run around on them the next. As with many of The Civil Wars’ songs, the vocal tag team effect makes it easy to imagine that they’re trading affections/accusations with each other. All of this climaxes in a wordless chorus that lets you know, whoever that troublesome ex-girlfriend/boyfriend was, he/she sure could “Ooh-Ooh-Ooh!”, whatever that means. It’s notable that in both this song and the previous one, the sound ranges from “full band with drums” to “two voices and a lone guitar” depending on how the mood of the song needs to morph as it progresses – so despite the thicker sound, there are still these tense pauses and intimate moments where you can hear John White tapping the body of his guitar to keep the beat, just as if the duo were performing live.
3. Same Old Same Old
This one more clearly resembles The Civil Wars of yesteryear, as does most of the album, really – for all of their new tricks, they still know how to wring as much emotion as possible out of the quiet grandeur of two voices and a few acoustic instruments. The setting here is quite sparse at first, with both voices almost at a whisper, so while you may not notice it at first, this one comes close to evoking the same emotions as “Poison & Wine”, just with mandolin and slide guitar instead of Joy’s piano, and a little less repetition. I’m tempted to draw that comparison because it’s another excellently-written song on the tension between passion and commitment, specifically concerning what happens to that commitment when the passion is gone. The lyrics defy expectations by laying the temptations bare, only to push them away due to a sense of integrity: “I wanna miss this… I want a heartache… I wanna run away… But I won’t.” It’s easy to paint someone who stays in a relationship due to a sense of moral obligation as a victim, stuck with a life they don’t really enjoy just for the sake of pleasing someone else. But the songwriting smartly avoids this by giving the dissatisfied lovers a chance to put a foot down and say something’s gotta give: “Do I love you?/Oh, I do/And I’m going to ‘til I’m gone/But if you think that I can stay/In this same old, same old way/Well, I don’t.” Without moralizing on the topic, the song gradually illuminates a relationship forged in fire, where the two learn somehow through all of their blow-ups and their bickering what caused the dissatisfaction to build to this point, and what can possibly be done to salvage it. “I don’t want to fight/But I’ll fight with you”… Man, those two lines say so much.
4. Dust to Dust
This is the one moment I alluded to earlier, where the presence of drum programming doesn’t seem to gel terribly well with The Civil Wars’ mostly low-key, organic sound. I’m sure some folks don’t mind this so much, but find the electric guitars in the first few tracks to be grating, so take it with a grain of salt. I can’t say that the programming is terribly obtrusive – it’s a really slow and simple rhythm, almost the sort of thing you’d expect a band to use in a scratch track so that a live drummer could later follow along and maybe improvise on it. I guess I’m just not a fan of paint-by-numbers percussion when it isn’t there to do anything that warrants attention being drawn to it. This song isn’t really about building up to a powerful climax like so many of their others are, so the way that the programming, the guitar picking, and even the vocals remain on an even keel throughout takes some getting used to. It’s one of the more tender and sympathetic songs on the album, as if the dust has settled from the previously described conflicts, and now those two old, weathered faces are looking at each other anew, finally realizing “You’ve been lonely too long”. The result is a peaceful moment of them letting each other again, finally breaking down the walls they’ve built to protect themselves. While the musical setting is a bit too “closing scene of a network drama” for my tastes (I’ll be honestly surprised if it isn’t pimped out on some CW show by Christmas), the song has grown on me and I’ve come to appreciate the hushed vocal delivery, which in its own way speaks to emotions that Joy and John White might not have been able to convey on “full wail”.
Trapped in between the world of The Civil Wars’ tender ballads and their darker-hued, edgier numbers, is this song about a moment of tender affection between two people who don’t care if the entire world sees them finally acknowledging their feelings for each other, so great is their need to just be held. There’s a mish-mash of things going on here, so much that I feel like the song struggles to find its footing, particularly in a verse that awkwardly pauses after its second line, then delivers the third line, then pauses again, going into the pre-chorus and leaving an incomplete rhyme just sort of hanging there. The chorus is catchier, particularly when it gets going with the steady strum of electric guitar and the pounding of drums. Yet at its heart, it’s still a folksy pop version of a love song, complete with the colorful sound of the hammer dulcimer, and I sort of think that’s at odds with the more forced “rock” sound of the chorus. Not to say that these elements can’t all be used in the same song, but they’re not tied together in as fascinating a way as I feel like they could have been.
6. Devil’s Backbone
Despite Joy Williams’ background in Christian pop music, The Civil Wars have never been a particularly religious songwriting duo, only previously alluding to such themes in Barton Hollow‘s title track, which was notably troubled in its declaration that “Can’t no preacher man save my soul”. This song takes that whole issue of wrestling with salvation and righteousness, and adds more of a personal stake to it, since it’s the prayer of a woman who has fallen in love with a man “raised on the edge of the devil’s backbone”. Once again, the conflict between emotion and convictions is strong, and I’m convinced that it’s this tension that makes The Civil Wars stand out from the pack. They go from near-acapella to edgy folk/rock in the short span of two and a half minutes – this song crams in quite a bit for being so short. I like that, rather than preaching a message about what’s wrong or right for this troubled woman to do, they simply let her prayer hang out there, undoubtedly resonating with the questions a lot of folks have had when they’ve realized that their romantic partners don’t necessarily share their same level of religious fervor. (Granted, these people aren’t generally dating outlaws, but give ’em a little artistic license – it’s folk music, after all.)
7. From This Valley
So at this point in the album, I was thinking a lot about the difference between The Civil Wars and the more upbeat religious themes of Joy’s old material, and wondering if there were any lingering fans from the old days that felt disappointed by the lack of religious content in her newer songs. I would have thought it completely off-base to expect something like that from The Civil Wars, personally, since to me Joy sounds a lot more interesting singing about personal conflicts, but then along came this song, which really floored me. With its straightforward acoustic guitar strum, a bit of fiddle, and a joyous melody, this one sounds so much like a folksy take on a traditional hymn that I had a hard time wrapping my head around the notion of it being an original composition. I mentally pictured the duo singing it at the Grand Ole Opry before Joy went and actually described it as “our Grand Ole Opry song”, so strange minds think alike, I guess. As God-happy as this song is, it never feels inauthentic or out of place, largely because the duo had been playing it on tour before recording it, and fans had responded well to it, so their take on the album version feels completely natural, like they didn’t have to fuss over the arrangement at all. The second verse, which John Paul sings, sums up the kind of simple but poignant reflection that I wish more Christian music nowadays could articulate better: “Oh, the outcast dreams of acceptance/Just to find pure love’s embrace/Like an orphan longs for its mother/May you hold me in your grace.” But it’s the third verse, where they drop the instruments and slow down the driving rhythm of the song, and seem to be ad-libbing each drawn-out syllable in perfect harmony like an old-school Southern Gospel group would, that really knocks my socks off. This one could easily bring the house down, and I almost wish that they had closed the album with it, since everything after this point seems incredibly subdued by comparison.
8. Tell Mama
I’m just going to admit this up front – my knowledge of music history before about 1995 is spotty at best, so I had no idea upon the first few listens that this was a cover of an old R&B song by the late Etta James. We’re talking a good ten years before I was even born here. Like with other covers that the group has done in a live setting, no attempt is made to mimic the original genre of the song, so what was once a short, sassy blast of horn-driven energy gets reimagined as a slow lament, in which Joy plays the role of a mother tenderly nursing her son’s wounds after a woman did him wrong and shacked up with another man. (Because really, at the heart of most Civil Wars songs, there’s someone doing a member of the opposite sex wrong.) The abrupt genre shift to pensive Americana, complete with mandolin and lap steel, puts more focus on the lyrics than it does on the style of music, which is both good and bad. It’s good in the sense that they’ve picked a song whose lyrics up well even when divorced from its original style. It’s not so good in the sense that the rather sleepy performance isn’t likely to win over a lot of fans of the original. I’m on the fence. I like it for the most part, but it’s probably the weakest track on either of their two albums.
9. Oh Henry
…and now we’re back to singing about men doing women wrong! At this point the subject matter’s getting a tad predictable, but it’s nice to have something up-tempo late in the album, so I can’t complain too much. Like “The One that Got Away”, this thinly veiled threat to a man who’s been seemingly everywhere in town (except for the six-foot-hole Joy’s about to shove him into) relies on both acoustic and electric guitar to keep its energy level up. Unlike that song, the energy of this one isn’t quite as convincing, despite some solid acoustic work from John Paul, simply because its chugging rhythm feels like it needs some percussion to support it, to keep it from getting lost in the bland haze of the electric guitar, which isn’t doing much besides just playing basic chords. John Paul’s vocal role is diminished in this one, and while Joy makes an attempt at a gutsier delivery late in the song, this is where we hit the breaking point and I don’t find her vendetta quite as convincing as some of the brooding she’s done in the duo’s other songs. This one’s enjoyable enough in passing, but not really a standout.
Back to the subject of songs that were so thoroughly transformed genre-wise, I couldn’t tell they were covers. Anyone from my generation really ought to know this one, but alas, I still lived in a pop culture bubble in my high school years, so I knew nothing of this classic by The Smashing Pumpkins other than a very strange and much harder-edged performance of it that the band did on some awards show that I happened to catch, which was not their finest hour. The more lush arrangement of the album version suits me better – not that either take is anything like The Civil Wars’ translation of it into a hushed lullaby. They even changed the time signature to 3/4, which makes it less rigid than it would otherwise be at the slow tempo they chose for it – it’s similar to what they did with Michael Jackson‘s “Billie Jean”. Now I’ll take Joy and John Paul’s voices over Billy Corgan‘s any day. The way that they overlap each other when wringing all of the emotion out of his story of a tortured child works really well. But once again, I have to dock a few points for an overly sleepy arrangement. It didn’t matter so much when I didn’t know the song was a cover, but without those strings and bells, something’s really missing from the arrangement. Like with “Tell Mama”, I get that the intent was to re-examine the lyrics rather than to do a blind karaoke cover of a song in a completely different genre. But I’m always torn when a cover of a well-arranged song isn’t as exquisitely arranged.
11. Sacred Heart
This tender little waltz of a song is every bit as sweet as the first album’s “To Whom It May Concern”, with a little bit of “Girl with the Red Balloon” thrown in during the bridge. The catch is that it’s sung in French, which means that I have no idea what it’s about, beyond the title offering a vague hint. Normally with this sort of thing, I’d look up the translation, but I’m trying to learn a little French, so I’m forcing myself to figure it out the hard way. Anyway, you don’t need to understand the song to grasp that it is a beautiful one. Heck, John Paul doesn’t even know what he’s singing here, which is why his role in this one is reduced to playing the acoustic and singing harmony vocals – Joy had to teach him everything phonetically, since as he put it, “I’m from Alabama. I barely speak English.” His finger-picking here is of the sweet and sentimental variety, so I can only imagine that Joy’s lyrics follow suit. (But it would be funny if the French being spoken here was of the variety that had to be “pardoned” immediately after.)
The album’s final song is also of the tender, finger-picked variety, but it’s incredibly bittersweet in this context, since it may well be the last new thing we’ll ever hear from the duo. This is the song that they recorded on an iPhone on the front porch of Joy’s house, and even in its imperfect demo state, it’s a lovely little glimpse at a point in time before their relationship went sour. Hearing the two harmonize, “You’ll always be the only one/Even when you’re gone”, will no doubt add fuel to the fire if those who will accept them as musical partners to no one but each other, so be prepared for the syrupy sweet lyrics to tug at the heartstrings if you were particularly attached to the duo (which I guess goes double if you were one of the shippers who secretly imagined their relationship being more than professional, despite my numerous attempts to convince you otherwise). There’s a slightly tinny quality to John White’s guitar playing, as if one or two strings are being unnaturally muted, leading to a bit of a dull thunk sound where certain notes should be ringing out – an imperfection that could have easily been fixed in an overdub, but that wasn’t changed at all because I guess they felt strongly about leaving this recording exactly as it was on that day. It’s the only performance of the song known to exist, according to Joy – so apparently they never played it live. Near the end, some crows can be heard squawking in the background, just to add to the summer evening charm of the whole thing. And with this, we bid The Civil Wars adieu.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The One that Got Away $2
I Had Me a Girl $1.75
Same Old Same Old $1.50
Dust to Dust $1
Devil’s Backbone $1.50
From This Valley $2
Tell Mama $.75
Oh Henry $1
Sacred Heart $1.75
Joy Williams: Vocals, piano
John Paul White: Vocals, acoustic and electric guitars
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.