By Alex Miller
From the opening tones of “The One That Got Away,” the lead song from their eponymous album, The Civil Wars show they are not the same group that penned 2011’s Grammy-winning Barton Hollow. Rather, the duo, composed of Joy Williams and John Paul White, have retreated to deeper recesses of the soul to produce their sophomore effort. As a result, the record comes off much darker and more mysterious than its predecessor. And while I could say something along the lines of, “the album magnificently triumphs to bring a raw, passionate performance which touches on the very emotions that make us human” (because that’s exactly what it does), I will instead simply say this: it flat out rocks.
The album as a whole conquers the emotional beauty of romantic dysfunction. Some songs focus on romanticism—“it’s just you and the moon on my skin” (“Eavesdrop”)—others on dysfunction—“I had me a girl/Like cigarette smoke/She came and she went” (“I Had Me a Girl”). But nothing captures the true essence of dysfunction, or the duo themselves, quite like “The One That Got Away.” As Joy Williams sings, “I never meant to get us in this deep/I never meant for this to mean a thing,” I—and so many other fans—can only hope she doesn’t mean the duo themselves.
But the fact of the matter is The Civil Wars are anything but a sure thing. They abruptly cancelled European tour dates towards the end of last year citing, “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.” Fortunately they got back together to produce their new album, its release amid a feud in which the two are no longer on speaking terms. There is evidently tension among the duo, but there is so much beauty in their music’s ability to bring the pair together.
Despite the turmoil, they are able to create a musical pairing that is unlike any other. Their voices blend so perfectly it seems shocking that there could be anything but actual harmony between the two. What makes the duo remarkable is their ability to create songs that seem so natural and heartfelt. In a time of synthesizers and over-producing, The Civil Wars create a sound that comes off rustic yet natural; it sounds as though they could be sitting next to you singing from a pair of rocking chairs.
This album harkens to a time long past when records were meant to be heard in their entirety, not downloaded one hit at a time. This album is more than a collection of singles; it is a captivating portrait of human nature. I have never comes across an album that portrays such an honest representation of human emotion. It is angry and sad, urgent and eloquent, beautiful and heartbreaking. While there are certainly stronger parts within the album, it would be almost criminal to separately identify the “better” songs, because it plays so naturally from beginning to end. Along with the ups and downs of the music, The Civil Wars discuss the ups and downs of life itself: from joy and laughter to sadness and heartbreak; the duo themselves a testament to the fragility of human life and relationships.
I desperately hope they can reconcile their differences, end their own civil war of sorts, and continue to make great music. It would be a tragedy for this album to become the duo’s swan song, but if that is indeed the album’s fate then it will be a swan song unmatched for years to come.