The Civil Wars
Here’s a riddle: what happens when you make an album and the two people involved aren’t talking? Well, here's the answer: a not-so-civil war, a fight, but a good fight.
Let's rewind a little; we all know that The Civil Wars are officially on ‘hiatus’ after a well-publicised tour cancellation last year. What we still don’t properly know is why. Joy Williams and John Paul White have not said much more publicly than they have to each other over the last eight months, at least not until an interview with Williams appeared online recently, an interview that teased a little but provided no solid answers.
Still, it’s about the music anyway isn’t it? Well, yes and no. It’s almost impossible to listen to this new album without trying to read something into the lyrics, especially as Williams explicitly explained in her interview that the story behind the break is written large right there in the music. With all this in mind you imagine a return to their Grammy-winning days would be tough to negotiate.
I never meant for this to mean a thing
Oh, I wish you were the one
Wish you were the one that got away”
That’s the opening verse of ‘The One That Got Away’, an aggressive song of regret, and a verse that reads as a confession. In some ways a surprising opener, it’s almost like you’re being prepared for what’s to come. It doesn’t take long to notice how much Williams leads the album: the French sung ‘Sacred Heart’ is basically her solo. White has a verse here and there but takes the lead on only two tracks - the stomping electrified blues of ‘I Had Me A Girl’, on which he shares verses with Williams, and a tender, brilliant, cover of Smashing Pumpkins' ‘Disarm’.
Another confessional is ‘Same Old Same Old’ musing on a relationship that’s become stale, deciding whether to refresh or dissolve. Sounds familiar. Things don’t change with the gentle ‘Dust To Dust’, including delicate vocals from White, and the aching ‘Eavesdrop’, both dealing with aspects of a disintegrating relationship. ‘Devil’s Backbone’ is another dark but powerfully emotional tale, this time of falling for “someone who’s nothing like you”, littered with lyrics that implore the reader to join the dots. There is a lighter moment, a relief from the intensity and stories of forbidden love in the shape of ‘From The Valley’, before a return to the fuzzy electric guitar rock of ‘Oh, Henry’ carries on the running theme.
Strangely, you’re left feeling excited about the future for The Civil Wars - then you remember where they are as people. It’s the kind of second album artists dream of; it builds on their debut, it’s darker, more intense while remaining accessible and enjoyable. It's quite the feat given the circumstances.
They've made an album that could catapult the duo further into the stratosphere, but perhaps ambitions of the heart (and career) will mean we won't get to see that happen. If so, that's a shame, but what a legacy they leave.