The concentrated romantic themes of the Civil War’s debut album ‘Barton Hollow’ and the performances that
followed on their tours led many listeners to believe duo John Paul White and Joy Williams were a couple. Late last year this was proved to be very far from the truth when the group cancelled a UK tour and announced an indefinite hiatus due to ‘internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.’ It seemed the success of their debut had driven a wedge between the duo.
It was some surprise when it was announced that a self-titled album of new material was to be released on a major label. Fortunately for us, much of the work on this record had been completed before the rift became an impasse. For anyone with any doubt, lead single ‘The One That Got Away’ did not signal reconciliation and is certainly not a love song; ‘I wish I had never seen your face/I wish you were the one that got away’ sings Joy Williams in this ode to regret. Musically it is as good as anything on the flawless ‘Barton Hollow’ but has an undeniable tension that informs the stormy instrumentation.
The dramatic disharmony is what gives the album a real edge of tension that their previous record doesn’t have. Themes of not having what you want and not wanting what you have run from the opening track to the last. ‘Dust To Dust’ is achingly longing and introverted when it begins, flourishing into the territory of the Swell Season’s ‘I Have Loved You Wrong’ as it peaks. The most radio friendly and Joy Williams-centric song is ‘Eavesdrop.’ From the roots-y tone they had set with the opening third of the record, this song diverts for a moment to dip its toe into crossover country. It plays along the lines of Lady Antebellum and masters it before moving on to the dark and swirling ‘Devil’s Backbone.’ As with the rest of the record, it is eclectic but not jarring. More country follows with ‘From This Valley’ an unashamed out-and-out country track which feels even fresher and brighter having been placed after the darkest and most menacing track on the record. ‘Sacred Heart’ is an unexpectedly atmospheric Parisian gem. Final track ‘D’Arline’ was recorded on an iPhone which gives a lovely discreet, lo-fi close to the album.
While the original material is mostly up to the band’s high standards, ‘Oh Henry’ dips into flavourless mediocrity. There is very little that is memorable about the track in the seconds after it has finished and the same can be said for a rather dull take on the Etta James track ‘Tell Mama.’ After including such sparkling covers as ‘I Want You Back’ and ‘Billie Jean’ on the deluxe edition of ‘Barton Hollow,’ it is disappointing to hear that the covers on this collection have none of that verve and feel rather like going through the motions. A take on the Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Disarm’ is, on paper, a brave and clever choice to cover and was a popular live request but on the record it is wilting and limp.
‘The Civil Wars’ is compelling and powerful. At its best moments it finds itself in that sweet spot reserved for truly outstanding music. Delicate moments sit side by side with thudding rock and rage. It is sweet and forceful in equal measure and a worthy successor to ‘Barton Hollow.’ While the record is compelling, the tell-tale inclusion of cover songs on a 12 track release suggests that, despite being solid throughout, this is ultimately an unfinished version of the album could have been. More than anything the track ‘D’Arline’ shows how fantastic this pair is when they perform together while, at the same time, underlining how much of a gap there is for the artists to bridge if they prefer to release a track recorded on an phone rather than get into the studio together.
‘The Civil Wars’ is out now
This article was first posted on August 7, 2013