It’s been one heck of a year for The Civil Wars. This time last year, they had just performed the final set of their tour, a show at Bonnaroo 2012 just weeks before Joy Williams went on maternity leave. They had won a Grammy award, an Americana Music Award, and collaborated with Taylor Swift on the anchor song from the ultra-successful soundtrack to “Hunger Games.” Then it all came crashing down as, at the beginning of a Fall tour, the band suddenly canceled all their dates, releasing a tersely worded statement citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences in ambition.” In the midst of all this turmoil, the band managed to record their follow up to “Barton Hollow”, simply called “The Civil Wars.”
While guitarist and vocalist John Paul White has mostly refused interviews about the album or the band’s future, lead vocalist Joy Williams has been doing the press blitz and answering questions about the band’s “hiatus” (neither is calling it a split just yet) by cryptically saying “it’s all there on the album.”
That is certainly bolstered up by the album’s opening track, the blistering “The One That Got Away.” When you kick off your sophmore album with the line “I never meant us to get in this deep. I never meant for this to mean a thing. Oh I wish you were the one that got away,” that’s some pretty compelling stuff. The faint undertone of animosity continues throughout the album. Songs like “Dust to Dust” and “I Had Me a Girl” smolder with the same passion and synergy that made “Barton Hollow” such a hit but there’s an angry edge there that didn’t exist on that first work, even on songs like “Poison & Wine”, where it was called for.
But don’t read too much into every track on “The Civil Wars”. There’s plenty in the music to make this a stellar release even without the personal drama. “The Devil’s Backbone” is the spiritual sequel to the title track from “Barton Hollow.” It’s a neat little bit of folk noir that hits a home run out of the gate.
The album’s upbeat high point is “From This Valley”, a song co-written with Phil Madeira and originally recorded for Madeira’s “Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us.” Because it’s a previously released track, it makes for an interesting peek into what a producer brings to an album. “The Civil Wars” producer Charlie Peacock brings a much slicker production to the song, putting it much more in line with the rest of the album’s feel than Madeira’s more spare “Mercyland” production, which got out of the way and let Joy and John Paul hold forth like evangelists. It will be interesting to see where fans of both version fall out on their favorites. My personal preference is for the “Mercyland” version, but both versions have their benefits.
Along with “Devil’s Backbone” and “From This Valley”, the other high mark for “The Civil Wars” comes on “Same Old Same Old.” It’s the song Joy Williams has been most vocal about in her interviews, it’s inspiration coming from about as close to home as you can get, her husband. There are great break up songs, great make up songs, and great love is forever songs”, but Williams has created the first great “warts and all” marriage song. The song strikes the perfect balance every long married couple battles, keeping love interesting when you spend every day of your life with the “same old same old.” It’s the most poignantly beautiful cut on the album and should end up being the song that is most remembered from “The Civil Wars.”
Who knows if The Civil Wars will ever perform together as a band again? Who knows if they’ll ever put aside their differences enough to return to the studio for a third album? For now, we can just rejoice in their pulling off the near impossible feat of following up a monster debut album with an album that matches its quality stride for stride.