On her first post-Civil Wars album, Williams sometimes hits the mark perfectly. And sometimes she sounds like she's trying on musical costumes to see what fits.
Joy Williams is starting over again. She released several successful Christian-oriented albums in the early 00’s before teaming up late in the decade with singer/guitarist John Paul White to form the folk duo the Civil Wars. But the duo, despite earning Grammy accolades and near-instant fame in the folk-Americana genre, apparently wasn’t built to last. They split up months before their second album was released, but waited an entire year after the album came out before making the band’s dissolution official. Now Williams is a solo artist again, and Venus is her first shot at creating secular music as such.
Venus goes out of its way to demonstrate that Williams as a solo artist is significantly different from Williams as part of the Civil Wars. The album has none of the rural grit that represented most of the Civil Wars’ best material, but it’s also very light on the syrupy piano ballads that populated far too much of the duo’s first album and got them airplay in the background of Grey’s Anatomy. Instead, Williams mines a sort of Nordic pop vibe for most of the album. There’s a bit of Björk lite here, some Jonsí-style active percussion (without using a drumset) there, plus touches of Florence and the Machine's synth-pop, Peter Gabriel’s African period, and even a 1990s trip-hop track.
It’s certainly a way to differentiate herself as a solo artist, but the record’s strong sense of pop melodies keep it from sounding too far out to be accessible to her fanbase. “Before I Sleep” opens the album with a mission statement of sorts. The song features a pulsing kick drum sound, rumbling synth bass, and a simple piano accompaniment to Williams’s vocals. Then the song expands in the refrain to include big ol’ pounding field drums and a backing chorale as Williams belts “I’ve got miles and miles to go / Before I sleep". It’s a widescreen rocker without electric guitar, it’s a big sing along in a minor key, and it puts the focus right on Williams’s voice. It basically does everything rich, but which is also why it feels so calculated, as if Williams had a whole team of producers and record company middle managers at her new major label home, Columbia, working extremely hard to make sure this album appeals to every single demographic they’re targeting.
Second track “Sweet Love of Mine” is the trip-hop song. It features a slightly funky beat supported by repeating “Dada da da” and “sweet love” samples. It’s a pretty good song, but the production is so on the nose that it sounds like Williams recorded new vocals over a lost Sneaker Pimps track from the ‘90s. Similarly, “Woman (Oh Mama)” hits the Afrobeat clichés hard. It has pounding percussion, skittering guitar, and a refrain that leans heavily on voices chanting “Ohh mama / Ohh mama / Ohh mama” incessantly. It’s also a solid track, but so far out of her comfort zone that one has to wonder how much Williams, who is credited as a co-writer on this (and every other song), actually contributed to this beyond her vocals.
That question doesn’t arise nearly as much throughout the rest of the album. The upbeat “Not Good Enough” is full of subtle synths and that Jonsí-style percussion, but its hooks and lyrics “When will we ever learn / That perfect is just not good enough” sound entirely like something Williams would come up with. “Until the Levee” captures a bit of the darkness that filled the second Civil Wars album with its downbeat tempo and minimalist instrumentation. And the chorus, “I’m gonna stand here in the ache / Until the levee or my heart breaks,” is also on-point for Williams. Even the pop ballad “Till Forever”, with its warm strings and and borderline cheesy drumset beat, sounds entirely like the sort of sentiment Williams expressed on some of the less melancholy Civil Wars songs.
On a couple of occasions, the album’s producers sit back and let Williams and her piano take center stage. The quiet “One Day I Will” is an inspiring “I don’t feel good now, but one day I will” song that relies entirely on Williams’ melody and delivery and works because of it. “What a Good Woman Does” is similarly arranged, but with a sardonic hook, “I could tell the truth about you leaving / But that’s not what a good woman does.” The restraint Williams and company show in not making this song into an all-out pandering country ballad is admirable.
If the Civil Wars didn’t really showcase Joy Williams at her purest, and if she grew beyond the limitations of the Christian music that marked her early material, Venus would seem like the perfect chance for her to do exactly what she wanted. But this record doesn’t feel like that. Instead of Williams just writing and singing exactly what she wants, this is an album that has the feeling of too many cooks involved. It feels like Williams is trying on a few different costumes to see what she likes, and only landing on material that feels natural maybe half the time. The good news is all of these songs are catchy and singable, and Williams strong vocal performance makes everything work even when a song doesn’t feel quite natural for her. Hopefully Venus becomes a big enough success that Columbia will loosen the reins a bit and let Williams be herself entirely next time out.