On 'Front Porch' Joy Williams Returns to Nashville and Embraces Her Legacy as Half of the Civil Wars
Front Porch is Joy Williams at her best. This album embraces Williams' legacy from the Civil Wars and incorporates it into her own musical personality.
3 May 2019
Joy Williams has had an interesting career. She started as a Christian solo artist, dropped that to further her career as a secular singer, then fell into success as half of the Civil Wars. Williams and her partner John Paul White rose quickly to modest fame (A song featured on Grey's Anatomy, a collaboration with Taylor Swift on the Hunger Games soundtrack) and just as quickly dissolved, a little less than two years after their debut album was released. The duo did manage to put out an excellent second album, but they were broken up long before its release.
In 2015 Williams released Venus, her first non-Christian solo album. It was a decided step away from the Civil Wars, mining influences like the Icelandic art-pop of Björk and Jonsí, 1990s trip-hop, and Peter Gabriel to make an interesting but scattered record of simultaneously beat-heavy and low key pop music. A long four years later, Williams' follow-up album Front Porch finds her drifting back to the folk-Americana scene where she found her biggest success.
"Canary" opens the album with a bluesy, jangly minor key acoustic guitar and a quiet stomping on the floor beat. It's immediately reminiscent of the title track to the Civil Wars' Barton Hollow. Williams begins singing quickly in the same Americana vocal style that was so distinctive in the Civil Wars. Low harmony vocals on the chorus as well as subtle fiddle and pedal steel guitar fill out the sound. This is the Williams' equivalent of a barnburner, and it's an impressive way to start the album.
She follows this up with "Front Porch", a quiet, melancholy song that aches with both regret and welcome. The beautiful chorus starts, "If never you find what you're looking for / Come on back to the front porch" and finishes with "Whatever you've done / It doesn't matter / 'Cause darling we're all a little splintered and battered." With simple acoustic guitar and fiddle accompaniment and more chorus harmonies, the song is a standout for its genuine sentiment and Williams' tender vocal performance.
These two tracks effectively set the tone for the rest of Front Porch, and Williams indeed sounds a lot more comfortable working in this acoustic milieu than she did on Venus. Next to "Front Porch" itself, the emotional high point of the album is "Preacher's Daughter", a tribute to her father, who passed away from cancer in the interim between albums. In three short verses, Williams covers her father's life, her own teenage rebellion, and his death. Her tender vocal performance conveys both her love and loss and it's a tremendously affecting song.
The remainder of the album is also filled with relaxed songs that showcase Williams' voice. Often, the tracks trade-off between melancholy and romantic. "When Does a Heart Move On" is the former, with lyrics about knowing it's time to end a relationship. It's followed by "All I Need", which discusses vague but major life changes (Williams and her family relocating from Los Angeles back to Nashville, possibly) but concludes in the chorus, "I may not have everything I want / But I've got all I need." Then we flip back to the bittersweet with "The Trouble With Wanting", which seems to be about desire and lust for someone absent (and possibly not interested) and how it often affect's one's life negatively. The pedal steel guitar adds to the country ballad feel of this song and also seems to represent the feeling of unobtainable desire effectively.
And next up "No Place Like You" is a travelogue about being on tour and away from the person you love. It's the one time on Front Porch where Williams leaves the vocal harmonies, fiddle, and pedal steel on the proverbial porch and lets her voice and acoustic guitar do all the work.
Another pair of songs on Front Porch specifically echo Williams' Civil Wars material. "When Creation Was Young" is a geological (and theological) history of the world with lines like "Before gold found the hills" and "Before Adam fell for Eve", that are followed by the hook, "I was loving you." Musically, the acoustic guitar playing is the same kind of intense minor key strumming that gave her previous duo its bite. Meanwhile, "One and Only" is a gently strolling acoustic guitar duet that is a straight up catchy romantic song of the type that always got Civil Wars fans wondering if Williams and White were romantically involved.
Front Porch feels like a course correction to a stylistic overreach. Venus was certainly not a bad album, but it was also a somewhat awkward fit. At the same time, the record feels like a retreat and a tacit admission of defeat for Williams. She tried the music industry in Los Angeles, and it didn't work out, and she moved back to Nashville. But is that a bad thing? She tackles the question head-on in the actual song "Front Porch" and seems to be arguing that there is value in returning to what works best for you. And it's hard to deny that Front Porch is Williams at her best. It took some time for her to come to terms with it, but this is an album that embraces Williams' legacy from the Civil Wars and incorporates it into her own musical personality.