In Brief: There’s a quiet strength to Venus that I find incredibly appealing. The Civil Wars are irreplaceable, and Williams is wise not to try, but her first full-length solo album in 10 years is still leaps and bounds ahead of her old CCM stuff.
You know sometimes, bad news isn’t quite as devastating when you’re given a long period of time for it to fully sink in? I mean, something still happens that you really dreaded would happen, and it still sucks, but rather than being hit with the news all at once and being stunned and speechless, you can sort of ominously see it coming for long enough that when it finally does happen, a part of you is relieved that at least you don’t have to dread it any more. For me, the breakup of The Civil Wars was like that. Any idiot could see it coming, considering the duo had stopped touring together in 2012, barely a year and a half out from their debut album, and “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition” were mysteriously cited as the reasons behind this decision. Sure, we managed to get a second album from the Wars in 2013 that had been recorded pretty much entirely before that point, and it was every bit as fine as their first, but the writing was already on the wall. When the breakup was finally announced last summer, it seemed almost like a formality. Of course it was a disappointing thing to see the final nail get hammered into that coffin, but at least it offered some closure. Joy Williams and John Paul White somehow made a musical partnership that was unlikely from day one work for several years, and they made two full albums of beautiful music despite the acrimonious nature of their relationship. That’s a hell of an accomplishment.
While we have yet to hear a peep out of white regarding his perspective on the breakup or his future plans, Williams has certainly kept herself busy before, during and after the Civil Wars saga, having already made a name for herself in the admittedly small niche of contemporary Christian music, and having already started to branch out from her comfortable, glossy pop roots as a songwriter before she paired off with White. Some scattered solo work was released throughout that long period, but she hasn’t released a full-length album since 2005’s Genesis, so I was happy to hear that she was working on a new album called Venus, which finally dropped this summer. It’s really her first chance to re-assert her identity to a wider audience who may only know her from The Civil Wars, and it’s one of those records that certainly benefits from the hushed and often haunted tone that the Wars perfected, but without as much of the folksy stuff. She’s found a way to merge that musically lighter and yet emotionally heavier approach to songwriting with elements of electronic and piano-based pop, which results in a mostly down-tempo record that throws a few curveballs exactly where it needs to. Williams’ approach has always been very conversational and confessional, and certainly that’s true for much of this album, though a few songs hint at a desire to spread her wings artistically and try some things that probably wouldn’t have fit the Civil Wars’ status quo. Producer Charlie Peacock is back in the saddle here, wrapping many of these songs in intriguing layers of sound while keeping the touch purposefully light. He’s a bit of a refugee from the constricting world of CCM as well, and back in the day he was one of its most prominent producers of pop perfection (if you’ll forgive the alliteration), so the pairing makes sense, though he’s wise enough to recognize where restraint is needed and make sure the tricks he pulls are subtle ones that elevate the artist rather than obscuring her identity. If any of these songs don’t work, it’s only because they were a little undercooked in the writing department. None of it ever smacks of desperation for relevance, though, which is a huge relief.
If you’re listening to this record hoping to get some answers about The Civil Wars’ demise, or at least some tidbits of juicy gossip, know that the burned bridge between her and White is only addressed obliquely, and even then it can be a bit difficult to sort out which songs are about that musical divorce and which ones are about the marriage troubles she went through in parallel (with the man who, I should note, she is still married to, and who is not and was not ever named “John Paul”.) She’s honest that some of it was painful, and a few songs make it quite easy to feel a little bit of her pain, seeming to come close on a few occasions to addressing her former partner directly, but never pointing fingers. Where love and peace are found on this record, them seem to have been hard-won, but that makes those emotions all the more genuine. Venus walks its tightrope of intimacy rather well – it’s neither too oblique nor too much information. Long story short, this is art, not tabloid fodder.
1. Before I Sleep
Joy meant for this opening track to be a bit of a bridge for Civil Wars fans. I can see it in the lyrics, which are full of aches, pains, and general tension as she tries to gather up the strength to face a long, cold, and difficult day. The music, which is somewhat like a piano ballad made semi-uptempo by the soft thump of a dance beat, is worlds apart. And I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. The song effectively splits the difference between its human and machine elements, with the keyboards and drum programming reflecting that cold, robotic feel of a person going through the motions and faking it ’til they make it. But then the live drums come in on the chorus and suddenly it’s more urgent, more cinematic. Some chopped-up vocals in the background add to the feeling of old world spliced with new world – they have choral overtones but they’ve been chewed up and spit out by a laptop. It’s an intriguing opening that tells us two things: This album will be full of immaculately crafted and interestingly textured pop songs, and it ain’t gonna be the acoustic guitar fest we might have been expecting.
2. Sweet Love of Mine
It seems weird to have a ballad so early on, but I suppose it’s like a Civil Wars album and there’s only so much upbeat to go around, so we can’t cluster the few uptempo songs we’ve got all in one place. This song had to grow on me, with its slow, chunky beat and its more simplistic vocal hook (which is sort of a half-there, low-pitched “da da da da” that the rest of the song sort of builds around). I almost want to say there’s a bit of Gospel influence in Joy’s humming (which takes up the entire second verse) and the way the melody twists and turns – but then there’s a weird sort of rigidity to it that doesn’t seem to fit at first. It all falls into place when I realize it’s a tender love song to her son, and given that, I appreciate that the melody goes to some unpredictable places. She’s underplaying some of the emotion so that the inherent mushiness of the song doesn’t override its artistry, and I suppose it’s not the right place for showy spontaneity – she needs to stick to a calm, simple structure to make it work. Due to the more repetitive elements of this song, I’m imagining that she might be able to pull this one off live as a solo act via looping device. It actually isn’t too far off from something that Vienna Teng might do, now that I think of it that way. (As it turns out, one of Joy’s co-writers on this one was Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger. Never would have guessed that in a trillion years.)
3. Woman (Oh Mama)
The record’s first singles, as first singles are wont to do, is most up-tempo track by a long shot. it’s a total curveball if you’re expecting it to give you a sense of Williams’ post Civil Wars sound, and that makes it about as much of a left-field surprise as Barton Hollow‘s title track was four years ago, at least in comparison to the mellow songs around it. Of course I love it. Syncopated, energetic acoustic guitar meets a beat that is part hand claps and part drum programming, dancing and skittering across the speakers like there’s no tomorrow, and the background vocals, cheesy as they are, are an effective enough hook as they repeat “Oh mama, oh mama, oh mama, oh oh!” Joy’s lyrics here are quite different from her usual style, and they almost feel like caveman-speak (or well, cavewoman-speak) at first, as she tries to sum up the entire history of how women have been viewed by the human race: “Woman monster/Woman child/Woman hero/Woman wild/Woman whisper/Woman scream/Woman listen/Woman free.” She gets to complete sentences soon enough, which leads to such intriguing observations as the one she makes in the chorus, which happens to be her own personal favorite lyric from the song: “I am a universe wrapped in skin.” As it dashes through its obstacle course of women being blamed for stuff and women being in charge and kicking ass and women being the seducers and the seduced all at different times in their live, the overall vibe I get is that it finds empowerment in the complexity of a woman’s identity. Her brash confidence is a nice contrast to the quiet vulnerability that takes center stage on most of the album.
4. One Day I Will
This one’s more of a sparse, haunting piano ballad. I like that there’s texture and emotion in the piano chords even though they’re a bit repetitive. It’s a good example of Peacock’s light production touch. Joy’s coming from a brutally honest place here, admitting that one day she’ll write happy songs again, but this is not that day. “Maybe if you asked me to forgive, one day I will”, she croons wearily. It’s definitely a heavy-hearted song, but I like that it’s honest about how you can’t force yourself to feel happy or forgiving before you’re truly ready. Her heartbreak is probably in reference to the dissolution of The Civil Wars, but this is one of the few tracks where I haven’t found any reliable commentary on its inspiration.
5. Not Good Enough
I just realized noticed that this record ping-pongs back and forth between the poppier stuff and the ballads, every other track most of the way through. I have to give both Williams and Peacock credit for the record flowing as well as it does despite that – aside from “Woman (Oh Mama)”, these transitions back and forth are never jarring. The approach here reminds me of “Before I Sleep” in that it’s built around a soft dance beat and keyboards, and it brings in the live drums on the chorus. Overall I’d say the atmosphere’s a bit more optimistic on this one, despite Joy’s lyrics about struggling to be perfect and coming to accept that it isn’t good enough. The song came from a raw moment when she had to admit to her husband that he would have to be brave enough to see all of her flaws and love her the way she was or else things weren’t going to work. It’s hard to be married for a long time without having this conversation at some point, I think. The song perfectly communicates her openness and vulnerability – none of this gets lost in the inherent catchiness of its melody or in the programming and keyboards that pull it gently into more radio-friendly territory.
6. What a Good Woman Does
This is another of the more stark, lonely songs on the record, and it might be the track where she comes closest to directly addressing her former musical partner. “I can’t carry the weight of this war”, she laments in the opening verse, just to make it abundantly clear that this is a Civil Wars post-mortem. A lot of artists would use this space to air dirty laundry, but the entire point of this song seems to be that she’s trying to be above all that, because “that’s not what a good woman does”. At the same time, a good woman doesn’t just timidly hang back and hide the fact that she’s sad or angry from the world, and I think you can hear a fair amount of the anger and disappointment in her voice here. She makes it clear that he’s the one who took off running, implying without directly stating it that the “irreconcilable differences” were pretty much a result of his refusing to reconcile them. Musically this song doesn’t grab me as much as a bunch of the others, but I really do appreciate the wise balance between airing out her frustrations and trying to stay on the high road. (Of course, we’ve heard absolutely zip from John on the subject, so I suppose he’s taking the high road in his own way.)
7. Until the Levee
Levees sure are an old-timey rural kind of thing to write a song about. The very word makes the song “American Pie” flash through a lot of people’s minds. Using a levee as an analogy for your heart and wondering how much it can take until that levee overflows is an intriguing place to start from, and I can see how this sort of a lyric would have worked well in a Civil Wars song. It’s the rare odd song out where Joy’s newfound piano/electronic-based style doesn’t fit the lyric so well. I mostly blame the song’s melody for that. The chorus on this one just doesn’t stick the landing. It just sort of hangs there feeling like it’s going to lead to a stronger hook, but it never does.
8. You Loved Me
This song feels like it was written as a follow-up to “Not Good Enough”. its piano melody is much more soft and sweet, perhaps even a little cutesy and simplistic, but it immediately clues you in that she was way more at peace when she wrote it. Rather than challenging her lover to accept her, she’s quite humbled and fascinated at how she could totally screw up and find out that his love for her was unwavering. This one hits me like a ton of bricks even though it’s so meek and softspoken. I’ve been married for ten years and I still haven’t figure out how to love like that. I withhold love when certain mistakes are made, hoping there will be a lesson learned from it. This song challenges me to love better than that.
9. The Dying Kind
This one’s a a bit of a dark meditation on how everything’s made to eventually die. I hear shades of Ecclesiastes here, and the lyrics are steeped in spiritual language, though not in the same way that one of Joy’s old CCM songs might have been. It’s a good reminder that our time on this Earth is finite, but it’s a sobering one rather than a comforting one. Due to the tense strings, the dark, pounding percussion, and the sampled whispers in the background, I can almost see this playing over a tragic scene in a Western film. I’m picturing a homesteader who has just been killed off due to a tragic misunderstanding involving the territorial army or the local natives, and his wife is grieving or something like that.
10. Till Forever
I’m going to be pedantic for a second here, because the spelling “Till” as a contraction of “Until” really bugs me. “Until” only has one “l”. You’re not tilling the soil forever. OK, pedantry over. This sweet love song is an interesting one to contrast with the cutesy, doe-eyed “I’m in Love with You” from Genesis, which was written right around when Joy got married (and coincidentally, released the year I got married, so of course I had a bit of a soft spot for it). Here she’s rediscovering a love for her husband that had perhaps laid dormant due to all of the stress their relationship went through. They’re welcoming each other back into an intimacy once came naturally, but is now a bit of a careful exercise in learning to trust again. I love that she can sing a line like “lover, find me underneath the covers” without it seeming lurid or voyeuristic. it’s because of all the emotional healing that had to take place up to this point. The physical connection is part of it, but it’s about sharing and understanding each other, not just raw desire. In its own quiet way, I think that makes it an incredibly strong and sexy little number.
11. Welcome Home
The final song comes back around to Joy’s role as a mother. After months of gently whispering baby names to her pregnant belly, she’s finally brought her new son home from the hospital, and she wants those words “Welcome home” to be what he hears again and again, leaving no doubt in his mind that he will always belong there and be loved there. You could certainly see this as an allegory for God welcoming a child into His arms if you wanted to – I like that the implication is there without it needed to be spelled out. I could actually see this track fitting in nicely as the closer on one of her earlier albums, but of course she hadn’t had the life experience at that point to sing it authentically. I hear this one and think, “Man, every kid should feel that way”. Having a place to belong is one of the absolute most fulfilling things in the lifetime of a human being.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Before I Sleep $1.75
Sweet Love of Mine $1.50
Woman (Oh Mama) $2
One Day I Will $1
Not Good Enough $2
What a Good Woman Does $1
Until the Levee $.50
You Loved Me $1.25
The Dying Kind $1.25
Till Forever $1.25
Welcome Home $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: