The Civil Wars, Self-Titled

by Madeline

Devastation of a Southern Gothic Musical Marriage Leads to Poetic Brilliance

As of August 2013, the Civil Wars are no more. They are no longer speaking to each other, and are indefinitely broken up. It has been speculated at length as to the nature of Joy Williams and John Paul White’s breakup–whether in fact it was a romantic breakup despite both being married to other people, or artistic differences that could not be resolved. One cannot help but listen to this album and to think it’s probably both, although the romantic feelings may have stayed emotional and never a full blown physical affair. If their breakup was necessary to create this album though, then I would say it was worth it. Intensely intimate and honest, there is a tortured beauty in the heavenly tones of Joy and John Paul’s harmonies. Moments like this happen just once.

The album starts off with the single “The One That Got Away”, an impassioned story of regret that showcases Joy and has John Paul singing background to her. Then on the next track, the brooding innuendo laced “I Had Me a Girl”, John Paul essentially sounds as if he’s answering Joy. This really sets this album apart from their first, in that the music is two people singing to each other instead of with each other. Joy and John Paul are alternatingly smolderingly furious and resignedly fatigued, but always controlled, paying attention to their pitch perfect harmonies.

While there are those moments of breathtaking harmonies like on “Eavesdrop”, Joy does seem featured quite a bit more on this album than on their debut. This is a little unfortunate, as Joy’s exquisitely pure voice often needs John Paul’s raspier vocals to pull it away from coming across as rather melodramatic. Still, I think the balance is more or less there on most of the songs. However, if you’re predominately a fan of John Paul’s voice–then this will be a big disappointment even though you can feel his influence probably more than on their debut through the music.

Musically, this album infuses more Americana and rock into the Civil War’s brand of largely acoustic driven folk/country/gospel. The music has a more aggressive ominous tone to match the heightened emotional stakes with drums and an electric guitar added on several songs making this album sonically different from their debut. Not surprising given John Paul’s previous stint as a failed rocthe civil warsk artist. This album also sees the inclusion of two covers, “Tell Mama” by Etta James and “Disarm” by Smashing Pumpkins. Strangely, it’s the cover of “Disarm” that is one of the album showstoppers with a perfection that comes from the pair having performed it for years for live audiences. Also, the modern day hymn “From This Valley” serves as a nice respite in the middle of the drama providing a glimpse of the way Joy and John Paul used to be.

At times, the album is a little uncomfortable to hear. It’s almost as if you’ve been peeping into your arguing neighbors’ window sort of enjoying the entertainment–but then witness them stab each other, and suddenly everything becomes deadly somber and almost claustrophobic. While Joy at least is willing to talk about the album–and has said that the imagery used is just that–poetic imagery, you can hear that it’s more. You can feel it, see it. While I recognize the exquisite “The Devil’s Backbone” is their purposeful take on an Americana murder ballad–you can’t help but think the opening lines are truer than either Joy or John Paul will admit, “Oh Lord, Oh Lord, What have I done…”

This is not a breakup album–it’s a Southern Gothic tragedy played out through music. It’s quiet. Loud. Desperate. Remorseful. Accusatory. Seductive. It’s two excellent solo artists realizing that they will probably never again taste the type of magic that happens only when they’re together, and broken that they just can’t be together anymore. In my opinion, the album of the year.

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