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The Civil Wars Live In the Tension on New Self-Titled Album (review)

sensibility recordings/Columbia (2013)

For the record, Joy Williams and John Paul White (known collectively as The Civil Wars) are still not getting along. In fact, last month Williams admitted to the Associated Press that she and her bandmate aren’t even speaking right now. When the duo unceremoniously and abruptly called off their tour last fall citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition,” it was unclear whether we’d ever hear from them again. And yet, here we are; The Civil Wars are releasing their second, and quite possibly last, studio recording—a self-titled album appropriately adorned on the cover by a massive plume of smoke.

So wide is the current breach between the two that this album might never have seen the light of day if much of it hadn’t already been recorded before things had come to a head. As producer Charlie Peacock told NPR, “It really wasn’t until they’d finished the bulk of their recording and gone off to Europe, and I was sitting with the tracks alone that I realized, ‘Oh my, it’s all here — they really aren’t getting along!’ In some sort of incredibly ironic twist, I suppose creating the music together was the best way to deal with it.”

This makes my job a bit ambiguous as the guy assigned to review the record: do I talk about the music, or do I talk about the compelling story behind the music? In this case, it seems the music is so intertwined with the story that we can’t separate one from the other: as Williams told the AP, “If you want to know what happened to the band, listen to the album.”

Indeed, you can feel the tension within the music itself, as well as in the brief behind-the-scenes video the duo have released with 1504 Pictures (seen below). In the video, Williams herself admits, “Great art is birthed from great tension,” and while you can feel the quiet tension in the video, there are these moments when the duo seem to lose themselves within the music as it is coming forth.

And that’s the whole point I want to drive home with The Civil Wars as an album: out of this tension, the duo have truly created a thing of beauty. The entire record, front to back, is loaded with an honesty, struggle, and rawness that is discomforting and refreshing all at once. From the first cut and lead single “The One That Got Away,” through the satisfying goth-folk of “I Had Me a Girl,” mournful cuts like “Devil’s Backbone” and “Disarm,” and the lo-fi goodness of closing track “D’Arline” (which almost sounds like they just went with the demo version), this record takes the listener on a hauntingly beautiful journey of emotion. If I had a criticism of the duo’s debut album Barton Hollow, it was that the title track with all its grit was probably the strongest cut. Due perhaps in part to the tension, and in part to John Paul White picking up more electric guitar, we hear more of that grit on The Civil Wars than we did on their first offering, providing a great balance between loud and soft moments. But make no mistake—the passion and presence are solid throughout.

All told, it’s apparent that Williams and White have leaned into their growing tension to make this record, allowing it to fuel their creativity for as long as possible before they reached their breaking point. The end result is not always comfortable, but it is definitely beautiful. The band have not officially called it quits—more like a hiatus, which Williams refers to as a “deep breath”—but it is safe to say there is no certainty about their future. I, for one, am very glad that they took the time to record this gem. Treasure it, Civil Wars fans, for it truly might be the last we hear from them.

4.5 / 5 stars     

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About the Author


Music blogger Rob Burkhardt has been a fan of country music since he was a child, cutting his teeth on the sounds of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Reba McIntyre and George Jones. In the words of the now-legendary Barbara Mandrell song, he was "country when country wasn't cool." Nowadays, Rob is both intrigued and excited about the mainstream crossover appeal of modern country, as seen in the success of artists like Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum. Even so, Rob's personal tastes in country music remain "old school," tied to the great legends of country. When he's not blogging about country music, Rob Burkhardt holds a day job as a middle school teacher, and is an avid sports fan. He lives with his wife and two teenage girls in southern Ohio.

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