By Brooke McAfee
The Civil Wars’ new album, entitled The Civil Wars, brings a tense, dark tone to their distinctive sound. The folk duo, consisting of singer/songwriters John Paul White and Joy Williams, has broken up, due to “internal discord,” and though the exact nature of this split remains unclear, the sentiment can be heard throughout.
Their debut album, Barton Hollow, featured the harmonious vocals of the two singers, their voices blending together in a unique way. Their second album relies more on the vocal talent of Williams, and the harmony is less balanced as White’s voice often seems to fade into the background, while Williams pure, dramatic voices soars.
The album opens on “The One Who Got Away,” featuring heavier instrumentation and the intensity that signals the theme of the entire album. The vocals are passionate and are perfectly matched by the 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…” This song is a definite highlight, since it keeps the signature sound that first drew in fans, but is also more expansive and experimental. White’s voice is featured more in “I Had Me a Girl,” a twangy song with a rougher quality.
“Same Old, Same Old” is infused with the gentle melancholy of a hopeless relationship that is crumbling apart, and seems to be an answer to Barton Hollow’s “Poison and Wine.” This particular song provides perhaps the most intimate portrait, portraying the heart of the “civil war,” which is showcased in the album.
It is followed by the haunting “Dust to Dust,” one of the most beautiful songs on the album. The poetic words are tinged with sadness, yet are reassuring: “You’ve been lonely too long/ Let me in the walls you’ve built around/ We can light a match/ And burn them down…“ “Eavesdrop” starts softly and calmly, but builds into a dramatic, defiant crescendo, with lyrics detailing the denial stage of a dying relationship.
Many of the songs are more eclectic. “Devil’s Backbone” will appeal to those who enjoyed the track “Barton Hollow,” and “Down in the Valley” offers a refreshing shift from the heartache of the previous tracks. They include a few cover songs, including Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm,” that they make their own with their sincere vocals.
Williams sings “Sacred Heart,” a song sung entirely in French. This song lacks the intensity present in many of the tracks, and seems like a bittersweet goodbye.The somewhat unusual “D’Airline,” composed of whispery vocals woven together in a intricate melody, concludes the album.
Avid fans of The Civil Wars’ may have mixed feelings about their new album. True, it is does not have all of the gorgeous, peaceful harmonies of Barton Hollow, and the duo’s parting is certainly a disappointment. However, this album tells a different story, and it tells it with such authenticity that it is difficult not be swept into its emotion.