The Civil Wars release, what could be their last album. The album is a beautiful collection of organic arrangements, radiant vocals and heart-rending lyrics. It’s the perfect ‘break-up’ album.
I first discovered this duo when their song If I Didn’t Know Better was featured on the pilot episode of the US TV show Nashville. They also sang alongside Taylor Swift in the beautiful soundtrack song Safe & Sound for the successful film The Hunger Games. I was captivated by their harmonies, the smooth and eloquent melodies and the passion-filled lyrics.
The Civil Wars are currently on hiatus, there is a large uncertainty that they will never get back together but nevertheless they release their beautiful self-titled second album. If you are looking for an album to dance around your room to, you are in the wrong place. This album is a perfect soundtrack to your tears, a soothing collection of tracks that will make your heart ache.
After connecting in a Music City recording studio writing camp back in 2008, Joy Williams and John Paul White created The Civil Wars and worked their way up the Nashville scene. Their Gold-certified first album Barton Hallow received a Grammy; it showcased the obvious talent and chemistry of Williams and White. And while they were never a couple, they are both separately married with children, their best songs play off the will-they-or-won’t-they tension that fills the spaces between locked eyes and harmonized choruses.
The songs on this album are nothing short of radiant, from the flawless vocals to the simple arrangements, the duo are an absolute treasure.
In late 2012, they unceremoniously cancelled a chunk of tour dates, and announced that they would no longer play together live. It wasn’t quite a breakup, but it was enough to seriously question if they would have new music for their fans this year. To everyone’s surprise, Williams and White somehow managed to get in the studio together, at the height of their mutual discontent, to record their highly anticipated sophomore self-titled album.
Their 2011 début album, Barton Hollow, received a huge boost when Adele hailed them as ‘the best live band I’ve ever seen.’ They went on to win two Grammy awards this year, collecting them without making eye contact or, notably, thanking each other. They stated ‘If you want to know what happened to the band, listen to the album.’
That raw honesty runs through the core of this album. From the album’s opening moments with the dark, smoky eruption of The One That Got Away, a resonant track that doesn’t have a hint of any reconciliation between the two. A perfect break-up song that could resonate with many, with poignant lyrics such as ‘Oh, if I could go back in time / When you only held me in my mind / Just a longing gone without a trace / Oh, I wish I’d never ever seen your face / I wish you were the one/ Wish you were the one that got away.’
I Had Me a Girl is a little brooding, a little dangerous. It smoulders says Williams. With dark Gothic tones and distorted electric guitars, White’s voice is seductive; Whereas Williams’ vocals are moody and entrancing. A classic Civil Wars type of track, with amazing vocal runs and simple relatable lyrics such as ‘Like cigarette smoke/ she came and she went/ I slipped through his hands/ to my back door man/ under his chin’ – what more do you want from a song?
The album is littered with songs, describing emotional turmoil. Same Old Same Old is haunting, gentle with profound lyrics. Williams describes the meaning behind this track she says ‘This song represents the ache of monogamy… What I’m realizing now is that sometimes the ‘same old same old’ can actually be rich, worthwhile and a great adventure.’ The track is beautiful, it’s about love, separation and desire. The gorgeous acoustic guitar gently accompanies the two voices.
Dust To Dust starts with a metronome drumbeat that is the pulse of the entire song. Williams’ voice is elegant, filled with heartache and longing. When she sings the lyrics ‘They don’t fool me, you’ve been lonely too long, and it is definitely heart-breaking. She comments on the process of writing this song. Dust to Dust is ‘an anthem for the lonely… when John Paul and I wrote this late one night in Birmingham, England, we decided to change the pronoun at the end of the song. We wanted to represent that we all experience loneliness in our lives.’
Eavesdrop is a mid-tempo acoustic number that builds. A song that could easily swap from Country to Pop, it is one of my favourites on the entire album. Williams says ‘Pregnancy literally changed the make-up of my vocal chords. There’s a different timbre to it now, and I love that I can hear the story of my son in my singing.’
Vocally, the real gem on the album is Devils Backbone, Williams croons about a bad boy love affair, and it’s a great showcase of what she can do with her stunning voice. The duo says ‘this song is our take on an Americana murder ballad.’ This track is a little more complex than the other, a smooth mix of rock ‘n’ roll and country.
From This Valley brings a cheerful disposition to a collection of sombre tracks. Towards the end of country gospel track, drums and guitars suddenly drop away to leave the voices of Joy Williams and John Paul White exposed, the duo harmonising with almost spooky grace. Syllables are elongated and multiplied, their voices blend together, twisting and turning, separating and uniting.
Tell Mama is a rendition of a classic, Williams quotes ‘We recorded the performance at Fame studio in Muscle Shoals, a place we’d written a few songs. I always felt the musical ghosts in that studio, one of whom was the great Etta James. We thought it would be a fun to take a stab at ‘Tell Mama.’ I found out later that where we recorded was the same room she recorded her version. That might explain why I kept getting goose bumps.’ They bring out the conviction in the lyrics and the gorgeous flow of the melody.
Oh Henry isn’t my favourite on the album; it seems to drop in quality ever so slightly. The music is bright and buoyant but the song doesn’t really sit well with the rest on the album. Disarm is a rendition of the Smashing Pumpkins number. This track showcases White’s soaring vocals, gentle acoustic guitar and perfectly mirrored harmonies, this is excellent.
Sacred Heart is the only track on the album in a different language. Williams says ‘We wrote this song in a flat in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower in full review on a cold night. Tall windows and Victorian furniture, somehow the atmosphere of all the seeped into the song.’ Although this song is in French, the feeling behind the words still bleeds through. A delightful and unexpected turn on the album, a charming song.
D’Arline is ‘a sweet lament of loss and the belief that you’ll never be able to love anybody else again. While we were recording the song together, John Paul and I could hear crows cawing in the background that I’ve since named Edgar, Allen and Poe. This recording and performance of the song is the first and only in existence, a work tape recorded simple on my iPhone.’ A quiet and gentle song that perfectly closes the album.
Williams and White haven’t spoken since the album’s recording finished in the early spring of 2013, and it’s a damn shame that there’s little chance these songs will be performed any time soon. Nonetheless, The Civil Wars have left fans with what is undoubtedly the best album of their career, an elegant, country-stomping exploration of emotional and creative inspiration that definitely didn’t disappoint.