To say there has been much anticipation surrounding the release of The Civil Wars self-titled sophomore album would be underestimating it by a country mile. Their endlessly cited ‘irreconcilable differences’ from last year when they cancelled their tour, and the hiatus that ensued, has resulted in all the marketing the duo would ever need in the form of gossip. Their decision to make another record under these circumstances has raised some eyebrows and a lot of questions, most notably from Saving Country Music, asking whether these supposed differences are simply well-articulated publicity, or whether they have contractual obligations. Maybe they both just want the money that they simply couldn’t attain from solo projects. The Civil Wars are, after all, a huge global brand now.
This of course puts many thoughts in mind when it comes to listening to the record that was borne out of the ‘tension’ that Joy Williams repeatedly spoke about in a recent promo. In addition, ‘The One That Got Away’ the lead single from the record, not only pulls at that tension but promises a more varied and edgier sound than ‘Barton Hollow’ delivered (read my single review of ‘The One That Got Away‘). And while The Civil Wars take care not to stray from the musical offerings that gave them fame and fortune, this is certainly a more musically distinct album, with plenty of twists and turns both musically and thematically. It is an album, ultimately, of conflict. This is exemplified in tracks such as ‘Same Old Same Old’, characterizing an internal conflict that swings between wanting to leave yet also wanting to stay. In this way storytelling is taken to a new level, as these kinds of (non-existent) timelines are not easy to translate into lyrics that on the one hand fit song, and on the other hand appeal and relate to listeners. Internal conflict and tension is something very personal, yet done in the right way can be very universal.
This is continued through songs like ‘Devil’s Backbone’, a story of more obvious kinds, following an inner struggle with going for the “bad boy” or not, before begging the Lord not to take him away. The dark gloomy clouds on the cover of this album also signify the darkness that is written all over it, dripping from the end of every sweetly sung line, trembling out as is Joy’s vocal trademark. John Paul White is also on form vocally, mostly supporting Joy as normal and occasionally taking the stage. The darkness is extended in the music, and glides from haunting to aggressive. As Joy has explained, this is tension in its essence, the foreboding ‘Tell Mama’ and the sharply edgy ‘I Had Me A Girl’, overdriven and distorted. The electric guitar gets plenty of use across the 12 tracks, but largely despite the edgier sound they have kept to fairly conservative instruments, namely acoustic guitar, mandolin, tamborine and pedal steel here and there. In fact, most of their musical experimentation has been in making the songs more dynamic. These songs are far more likely to punch you in the face then scare the crap out of you than those on ‘Barton Hollow’, despite its musical excellence as a separate entity.
However, they don’t shy away from the perfectly-orchestrated ballads, ‘Dust To Dust’ being a particular highlight, utilizing those harmonies that attracted many of their fans in the first place. The melody is also one of the best on the album, and the instruments gently build up bit by bit making it one of the best produced tracks I’ve heard in a long time. And considering how quickly this album has come about, time is something they appear to have taken over every track. There’s not a step out of place, such as the complex mandolin parts on ‘Eavesdrop’ that are expertly played, and the beautifully simple country tune ‘From This Valley’ that offers an odd kind of light relief, so cheerful among so much negativity. A reason for this may be that it was written before this album era, the calm before the storm, either way it sets e on edge slightly to hear it in such a pre-determined context. Perhaps that’s the point. ‘Oh Henry’ creates a similar effect within itself, moving between Joy’s wailing in a minor key and an upbeat, cheery chorus in a major key – The Civil Wars’ ability to manipulate the emotions and senses is quite remarkable.
Yet they take our primary sense away for ‘Sacred Heart’: our ability to understand lyrics and thus make sense of what a song is about. Because the song is sung entirely in French, made even more difficult by the fact Joy’s diction is not exactly clear when she sings in English. Perhaps, going against everything that has led up to this album, ‘Sacred Heart’ is not meant to be understood but simply enjoyed, not analyzed for all its worth. Fans and critics will do that endlessly for the other tracks, and of course the lyrics will be translated and poured over, but for a short period of time, they will just be intertwined with the music, another instrument of their own. As a note of interest, Sacred Heart is the English translation of a majestic Roman Catholic Church in Paris, called Sacré Cœur.
But by far the best track on this record is ‘Disarm’. At nearly 5 minutes in length, it allows time for a universe all its own to be created and grown. This is building up a track at its best, which holds back so gently for so long before finding its feet and losing them so young in life. In fact, that 5 minutes feels like 2, and you reach the end crying out for more. That for me, is songcraft at its finest. This is an album of two halves, so intertwined and so perfectly represented in song, so wonderfully written and produced. This is a new Civil Wars , a grown-up Civil Wars.
Surely the lyric that sums up this record is “don’t say that it’s over” in ‘Eavesdrop’. The song appears like a plea to each other, “for all that we’ve got, don’t let go”, the desperation audible in their voices. Yet this is juxtaposed by moments of calm and beauty that makes the tension so much more apparent. ‘D’Arline’ has been produced with a distinctly live feel, with the loveliest acoustic guitar part and harmonies that discard the anger, the bitterness and resentment in favor of love and care that is more reminiscent of what we’re used to hearing from them. It is a lovely way to close an album that presents so many problems of internal conflict, yet ends on a surprisingly nice note. This will lead many to wonder of the truth between John Paul and Joy, but perhaps it’s all true. Internal conflict is about both love and pain. And maybe The Civil Wars are just that.