The cover art to The Civil Wars’ self-titled sophomore album depicts a vast, billowing plume of black smoke, suggestive, perhaps, of a smoldering relationship that eventually ignited and left some unpleasant fallout. Right now, despite this release, the vehicle of singer-songwriters John Paul White and Joy Williams, The Civil Wars, is no more. The record was put together late in 2012, seemingly just as the duo called time midway through a European tour, citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition” as reasons for the “hiatus.”
That said, the music doesn’t show signs of suffering from this creative fission; the record is as compelling as its Grammy-winning predecessor, 2011’s Barton Hollow. Of course, theres nothing to say that great art cant come from internal strife just look at Fleetwood Macs Rumours, for one. Indeed you might have assumed that White and Williams were a couple when in fact theyre married to other partners. Such was their on-stage frisson though, it is almost like they have broken up in both senses.
It is tempting then to take opening track The One That Got Away as the duos swansong. I never meant to get us in this deep/ I never meant for this to mean a thing, Williams sings over Whites resonant guitar. They clearly did get deep emotionally and it obviously does musically. Its hard not to relate those lines to the duos own relationship and sense how the tension of performing like life partners eventually got to them, evidenced in the line I wish you were the one that got away. Similarly, Whites delivery of youre like a mirror, reflecting me on the exquisite Dust To Dust gets the Williams response takes one to know one.
Whites throaty delivery meshes perfectly with Williams remarkably pure vocal tone to create an intimacy that verges on the claustrophobic. From the country swing of From The Valley to the fulsome blues rock of Oh Henry, the album is instrumentally heavier than its predecessor, and this makes the stripped-down songs stand out to greater effect. So, the bittersweet cut and thrust of Same Old Same Old and shaded intensity of the Smashing Pumpkins cover, Disarm, claim their space. There might not quite be a Poison & Wine here, but taken as a whole, The Civil Wars is a more consistent collection than Barton Hollow. Chances are these songs will endure, but hopefully the hiatus wont.
Essential Tracks: “The One That Got Away”, “Same Old Same Old”, “Dust to Dust”.