Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Civil Wars - The Civil Wars

When the Civil Wars, the songwriting partnership between Christian music artist Joy Williams and Nashville singer/songwriter John Paul White, cancelled a slew of tour dates last fall—citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition”—it was a sudden bump in the road for what had quickly become the most promising outfit in all of country and folk music. For a long time, it seemed like nothing could go wrong for the two artists. After all, it had only taken a few months for 2011’s Barton Hollow to collect a whirlwind of industry buzz: by mid-summer, the gorgeous boy/girl harmonies of “Poison & Wine” were on every television show from Pretty Little Liars to Army Wives; by Christmas, Williams and White had a song out with pop-country superstar Taylor Swift for the soundtrack of the upcoming Hunger Games film; and by the Grammy telecast that winter, just a year after Barton Hollow had hit shelves, the Civil Wars were clutching trophies and wowing audiences with the best performances of the night. Clearly, the two singers were on their way to superstardom of their own.

But when that tour got cancelled in November, it was a red flag. Bands cancel strings of concerts all the time, but the grimly foreboding atmosphere that accompanied this particular announcement was different. The words seemed carefully—and pointedly—chosen, like one half of the group was trying to send a message to the other. It was a declaration of civil war within the Civil Wars, an ironic occurrence that nonetheless hit hard and worried everyone who fallen in love with this band’s lush harmonies and luminescent songwriting the first time around. As I type these words, Joy and John Paul are still not on speaking terms, and with every day, it seems more and more likely that we will never get another tour or hear another album from them. They will keep singing, of course, keep writing songs on their own, but from the way things have gone recently, it feels like their days of doing those things together are over. The contents of their sophomore album, simply titled The Civil Wars, do nothing to refute that assumption.

Barton Hollow was one of my favorite albums of 2011. It narrowly missed my top 15, but songs from it have remained in constant rotation ever since. It always amazed me how these two people who had apparently come together at a songwriting workshop could sound so in sync on their first-ever studio album. The harmonies and the conviction on songs like “Poison & Wine” or “To Whom it May Concern” made it feel like Williams and White had been writing and recording together for decades, like they were some reincarnation of Johnny Cash and June Carter with even more striking voices to power their music. I bring this all up because The Civil Wars somehow makes Barton Hollow sound like a debut. This is not a sophomore slump. Instead, it is a refinement and a betterment of everything that was already so great about the first record, and it’s the closest I’ve come to giving anything a perfect 10 for as long as I’ve been actively writing about music. Yes, it’s that good.

Where Barton Hollow had one heavenly single that everything else was built upon, this album has half a dozen songs that could fill that role, from the moonstruck radiance of “Eavesdrop” to Joy’s haunting take on the Etta James standard, “Tell Mama.” Barton Hollow split vocal duties more or less equally between White and Williams; The Civil Wars finds Joy taking the lead on most of the songs, but John Paul’s presence is still far from diminished. Even when he hardly sings, as on the demoralizing first single that is “The One That Got Away,” his newly-added electric guitar sound roars and snarls in the background. It’s the sound of both his fury and his passion for the music, and it creates a divide between him and Joy that wasn’t there before, a jagged tension that is palpable on nearly every cut. See the Rick Rubin co-produced “I Had Me a Girl,” one of two songs where John Paul is allowed to dominate the proceedings. “I had me a girl like cigarette smoke, she came and she went,” White croons in the verse, leading to a scathing refrain of wailing vocals and distorted electric guitar lines. A song like this would have sounded alien on Barton Hollow; here, it sounds vital.

As The Civil Wars charges forward, it becomes clear that this is the band’s break up album: it has to be. As if the key line in the lead-off single—“I wish you were the one who got away”—didn’t offer enough indication, this is an album filled with regret, wavering from minute to minute between loud and soft, sadness and anger. The plaintive strains of “Same Old, Same Old”—a song about wanting to lose a stagnant relationship to realize how great it really was—give way to the desolate loneliness of album highlight, “Dust to Dust,” where an electronic drum machine melds with the whine of a pedal steel and a single scream of guitar feedback to express the resignation of complete solitude. “You’re like a mirror, reflecting me,” White whispers in the final verse. “Takes one to know one, so take it from me,” Williams replies, in a similar vocal timbre. It feels like a mini argument playing out in song, and while the lyrics aren’t about breaking up or losing touch, it still feels like something born out of the cracks in a relationship’s walls.

By the time John Paul reaches “Disarm,” the Smashing Pumpkins cover that resides near the end of the album, he sounds like he’s given up completely, like everything has come crashing down around him and he doesn’t know how—or doesn’t care—to rebuild it. I don’t often like when bands put covers on their studio albums, but here, they just work. The Civil Wars have a way of recreating songs that is magnetic and nearly unrivaled in today’s music industry. They strip them down, tear away their excesses, and leave us with a shell of something that feels completely of a piece with the rest of their work. When Billy Corgan put “Disarm” on an album 20 years ago, it may have been covered in strings, bells, and other orchestral flourishes, but at its center, it was a song about a boy who grew up filled with loneliness, confusion, anger, and alienation. John Paul’s hushed acoustic version brings those themes to the forefront. “The killer in me is the killer in you, my love” he pledges. It may just be a line in a cover song, but it feels like he’s given the Civil Wars its death sentence.

“Disarm” should be The Civil Wars’ parting shot, but it isn’t. We get snatches of redemption on “Sacred Heart,” where Joy sings entirely in French, and “D’Arline,” a lo-fi, iPhone-recorded love song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the first record. Neither song is weak, but both feel out of place and represent a regression from what the other 10 provide. “Sacred Heart,” in particular, feels tacked on, partially because the language barrier makes it difficult to relate to, partially because it completely relegates White to background singer duty, but mostly because it represents a bizarre tonal shift from everything else on the disc. Other moments on the album change the mood, too: both “From This Valley” and “Oh Henry” were written before Barton Hollow, and are, unsurprisingly, the songs where Williams and White sound the most like they once did. “From This Valley” is particularly fun, a vintage-sounding country anthem which Joy has called “our Grand Ole Opry song,” complete with a stunning a cappella section. “Oh Henry,” meanwhile, is a propulsive folk rocker with the album’s biggest and best chorus. But those songs fit perfectly into the ebb and flow of the rest of the album, while “Sacred Heart” and “D’Arline” would work better as bonus tracks. It’s a small gripe, but one that blemishes the utter perfection of the rest of the album.

Still though, it’s hard to complain about a record as splendid as The Civil Wars. If this is the last thing we ever hear from John Paul White and Joy Williams as a team, we can at least rest assured knowing that they had reached a pinnacle. Heartbreak and turmoil have a knack for bringing out the best in musical performers. We’ve seen it a number of times this year, from Josh Ritter’s The Beast in its Tracks to Jimmy Eat World’s Damage, and we’ve seen it countless times across the fabric of music history as well. But The Civil Wars doesn’t just feel like another break up album, like another guitar-slinging troubadour singing songs about the girl who broke his heart. It feels like a genuine classic, like a conversation piece people could still be talking about decades down the road, and that’s because the emotional turmoil—whatever that is—is playing out before our eyes between the people singing and playing the songs. As the years go forward, we’ll learn more about what happened between White and Williams, what broke their partnership in half to such an extent that they couldn’t even speak with one another, let alone write songs or perform them. Perhaps they will reconcile, and perhaps they won’t. Perhaps the public story is true and their relationship was never a romantic one, but then again, perhaps it’s not. Answers to these questions, if they ever come, will determine how this album is viewed in the future, whether it turns out to be the album that severed ties between a promising and massively talented duo or the darkest moment in a catalog full of classics. For now though, I can only judge the songs, and those are nothing short of radiant, from the perfect vocals to the organic, full-bodied arrangements, from the heart-rending lyrics to the way that producer Charlie Peacock surrounds everything in a smoky ambiance. It’s an album that, I think, is impossible not to like, and I don’t expect I’ll hear better in 2013.

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