It’d be a shame if this album disappeared in the shadow of its own backstory. Even at that risk (and in the confidence that the album can carry itself), the story’s worth repeating, even only to get it out of the way. The Civil Wars fortuitously and quickly came together a few years ago, and their debut album, Barton Hollow, expressed a dark loveliness in its excellent Americana. It was immediately striking yet improved on additional listens. The Grammy-winning album had that feel that made describing it easily turn to cliché: it was steeped in tradition and sounded buried in the past while feeling entirely new. Joy Williams and John Paul White were engaging on record and charming off of it — we had a few more great albums to look forward to.
Then the duo split. Williams and White haven’t said much in detail, but they ended their tour. With apparently most of the new album completed, the pair finished the self-titled disc and then went their separate ways. The frequently bleak and hurt album could be gossip fodder, the source of biographical questioning. It’s a good album, it doesn’t reveal that it’s about them, and we can leave it at that.
Pushing aside the story, The Civil Wars improves upon its predecessor. The central aesthetic remains in place (the sort that always makes me think a black boss of the plains hat must somehow be involved). This new one’s more intricate, though, but it isn’t more careful. The edge is a little sharper, a little more electric. You might think about how pretty this record is, but you’ll feel how demanding its resonance is.
The clearest example comes with the group’s cover of Etta James’s “Tell Mama”. The Civil Wars turn it into a meditation that might make you even miss what song it is. Rather than an R&B romp, the cut becomes a folkie psychological study, and Mama’s far less playful in crisis. The album’s other cover, the Smashing Pumpkin’s “Disarm”, doesn’t really make things bleaker, but the duo does nicely work it into their style.
Dwelling on the covers would neglect the songwriting strength of Williams and White (which really isn’t a paint company). Set amid a perfect arrangement and led by Williams’s strong vocals, single and opener “The One That Got Away” just hurts. The idea of wishing “you were the one that got away” provides enough pain, but lyrics like “Oh, if I could go back in time / When you only held me in my mind / Just a longing gone without a trace” are nearly debilitating. The performance’s restraint adds to the emotion with the pop on the oh‘s providing just a bit of release.
“Eavesdrop” highlights the group’s melodic sensibility, feeling almost like a re-worked Fleetwood Mac if Fleetwood Mac were a band I liked. They’ve developed their sense of timing and dynamics, and Williams’s delivery matches the tone of the song, her phrasing simple yet effective. White’s vocals do their fair share, too, with “I Had Me a Girl” offering one of the prime examples. The two singers trade lead duties here, but White’s country blues dictates the atmosphere of the song even more than the sharp music.
All of this exceptional music, of course, makes it sadder that the Civil Wars are done. Fortunately, that has nothing to do with The Civil Wars.