On The Civil Wars’ New Album, Tension Is The Only Friend
By Kevin Rutherford
Sometimes, bands release one final album before breaking up, citing differences that were irreparable, either in a creative sense or otherwise. Other times, a group returns to recording together after such a hiatus, which is either a regaining of lost chemistry or just seems forced completely.
The Civil Wars did things a little differently.
The country/folk duo (John Paul White and Joy Williams) had become one of music’s rising stars, with an acclaimed debut album–2011′s Barton Hollow–and endorsements from the likes of Adele and Taylor Swift. The group wound up accepting two GRAMMYs a year after the album’s release (Best Folk Album and Best Country Duo/Group Performance). They also landed a spot on the Hunger Games soundtrack, collaborating on the song “Safe and Sound” with none other than Swift herself. The song wound up winning another GRAMMY earlier this year.
When the two took the stage during that third GRAMMY victory (as part of the pre-telecast awards ceremony), video footage of their acceptance speech finds White and Williams together, yet separate. Each takes their turn at the microphone, and Williams and White approach T-Bone Burnett, the song’s producer, hugging him. But for a duo that owes their success to performing together, there’s not a word spoken between the two. They stand with either Burnett or Swift separating them. There’s not even a mention of the other in their speeches.
Those in the know might have wondered if both Williams and White were going to show up at all. That’s because, by this point, the Civil Wars were on hiatus. In a statement released last November, the two explained the split by citing only “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.” One might have thought the Civil Wars a blip on the radar, making its final in-person appearance before disappearing forever.
Which is why it was such a surprise when, this past May, the band announced it was putting out a new record, titled simply The Civil Wars. The cover they revealed was ominous, too — a black-and-white photo of smoke billowing from an unknown source, while one side art of the cover was untouched, the soothing white to the swirling grey.
Speculation came immediately. When was the album written? How? Was this a return from hiatus? Were they even on speaking terms? They must be, if they’re putting out a new album… right?
The Civil Wars finally dropped this week, and in more ways than one it’s an ode to that discord, unease and unknown. It was regarded as a record that could potentially explain the strife that came between White and Williams, to help better understand why the duo had split. Williams had been vague about it in the few interviews she’d given, and White wasn’t talking at all.
“It was similar in terms of the actual recording process,” Williams recently told InStyle. “We wrote the songs together, recorded them in the same room, much like the previous project. This time around we wanted to really profess a sound sonically and lyrically and I think we did that despite the tension between us. The tension is very much in that sonically regarding harmony.”
The duo’s debut, Barton Hollow, was universally lauded. Though both came from different backgrounds — White the alt-rocker, Williams the Christian pop singer (the duo met at a Nashville writing camp in 2008) — their voices molded effortlessly, creating endearing harmonies and melodies with an onstage chemistry that made them as rewarding to watch as they were to listen to.
From a general standpoint, that first album spoke often of love and its effects. “C’est la vie, C’est la mort (Such is life, such is death) / You and me / Forevermore,” they sang on “C’est la Mort.” “Oh my, look what you have done / You’re my favorite song,” came the refrain of “Tip of My Tongue.”
In interviews about The Civil Wars, Williams hinted that in order to find out what happened to the band, one need listen to the new record. Understandably, the consensus thereafter was that the album was riddled with clues to the demise, like it was a puzzle meaning to be solved. After all, the band wrote much of the record on the road last year, while the tension was hitting its peak. Afterward, at the urging of Rick Rubin (who co-produced the electric guitar fuzz of “I Had Me a Girl”), the duo hit the studio to record the album in a two-week period in September.
Following the hiatus, the group did reconvene to finalize some key points of the record with producer Charlie Peacock. But since spring 2013, Williams says she and White have not been on speaking terms at all.
However, the follow-up to Barton Hollow isn’t as revelatory as one might have thought. Sure, there are the songs of relationships lost, or of discord with a lover, or a friend.
But didn’t we hear those on the last album, too?
Looking at the lyrics of both albums is interesting because Barton Hollow actually has its fair share of downtrodden love tunes, some of which could easily fit on The Civil Wars given the initial perception of what the album was going to be. Calling someone “the absinthe on my lip, the splinter in my fingertip” suggests a relationship far from peachy. The cover of the Jackson 5′s “I Want You Back” sings of love the narrator has lost and wishes to return. “Oh, I don’t love you but I always will,” goes the refrain of “Poison & Wine.” “I missed you / But I haven’t met you” suggests a distance that hasn’t yet been covered.
That’s not exactly revolutionary; many albums vary between love and love lost. To that end, The Civil Wars is nothing new. But the tension that permeates the new record is not just about the lyrics here. It’s every little detail.
Barton Hollow may have had its unhappiness, but still White and Williams blended seamlessly, spurred by the bond the duo seemed to share onstage and on record. Still, the romantic dialogue was purely artistic, rather than true; both are happily married, but not to each other.
In a recent interview with NPR, Williams speaks to the fragile relationship between her and Williams. “I do think it’s important to not take lyrics too literally,” she says, but strip away the romantic undertones and there are a few songs in particular that certainly embody the relationship between the two singers.
The first single, “The One That Got Away,” dropped in June and immediately the album’s rallying cry. It’s a song of intense contention and longing for different circumstances, mostly in the sense that there would be no circumstances at all — no choice meeting and no continued relationship. “I never meant to get us in this deep / I never meant for this to mean a thing / Oh, I wish you were the one / Wish you were the one that got away,” Williams sings in the song’s opening verse, flanked by ominous electric guitar and Dobro.
Now that we have the full album in hand, though, the context broadens.
“Same Old Same Old” eases in as track three. It’s a number that, unlike “The One That Got Away,” feels more like a conversation between Williams and White. “If you think that I can stay in this same old, same old / Well, I don’t,” they croon. Both narrators profess a love for each other, but feel they can’t remain in the status quo, perhaps a commentary on the group’s working relationship to that point, or the struggle of being away from one’s family for extended periods of time. Maybe it’s the simple struggle of monogamy, not just in a relationship sense but also in a musical sense–as in White and Williams are now tied to each other and expected to work as the Civil Wars.
Further in, “Dust to Dust” is about loneliness, the chorus particularly ominous: “Let me in the walls you’ve built around / We can light a match and burn them down.” Then, “Oh don’t say that it’s over / Oh no say it ain’t so” comes the plea on “Eavesdrop.” ” Can’t live with you or without, but oh / That’s how it goes,” they sing on “D’Arline.”
But interestingly, the emotional centerpiece of the album is a song that wasn’t even penned by the band itself.
At live shows, the duo would often profess that they came from different musical backgrounds, therefore not having a lot of common ground when it came to influences. However, the Smashing Pumpkins‘ “Disarm” was a shared interest, and the song became a cornerstone of the band’s live show years ago. Just as covers were employed on Barton Hollow, “Disarm” makes its way onto The Civil Wars.
“Disarm” may not have described the band’s relationship when they first sang it together, but it’s among the best song choices for this record. “The killer in me is the killer in you” comes the end of the oft-covered chorus, and the band sings with such conviction that, lyrically, it fits in with their own material so well that those who have somehow missed the original won’t even bat an eye at its inclusion.
“Disarm” is also important because it helps exemplify one of the album’s most telling signs of toil. It’s mostly performed by White, with sporadic lead vocals and harmonizing from Williams. Interestingly, while many of the Civil Wars’ tunes show the duo in equilibrium, feeding off each other without taking from the overall impact, “Disarm” is tenser. Williams’ lines soar above White’s, sometimes entering unexpectedly, as though each is wrestling for the listeners’ attention. It’s an incredibly intriguing harmony of voices that sounds like each is trying to tell his or her side of the story, rather than act as a complement to the other, which has been more of the band’s oeuvre to date.
The same occurs in “The One That Got Away,” which takes the tug-and-pull vocals to a new level. Again, their voices mesh, but there’s a sense of unease, like both are trying to pull the attention away from the other.
This is not to say the entire album embodies the discord between the two, but much of the calmer fare was written earlier in the band’s career — such as the upbeat “Oh Henry,” about a wandering man the narrator nonetheless loves, and “From This Valley,” which is sung with religious fervor (“Oh, I will pray, pray, pray till I see your smiling face / I will pray, pray, pray to the one that I love”). Chalk up “Sacred Heart” and “I Had Me a Girl” as other tunes that were being played as far back as 2011, before the band won a single GRAMMY.
Ultimately, when Williams says The Civil Wars can help us understand what happened to the band, it’s about the big picture, not just the lyrics. It’s about the overwhelming sense of unhappiness and longing for a better relationship, be it working, romantic or otherwise. It’s about the give-and-take between the duo’s vocals. It’s about how White, a commanding presence on Barton Hollow, seems more distant here, his voice not at the forefront nearly as much as in times past.
Fortunately or unfortunately — and maybe this was the intent all along — The Civil Wars raises more questions than it answers. One or both were not happy in the band relationship, touring or otherwise, and there was added tension as a result. Is that a relationship left irreparable, or is there a common ground? Does the inclusion of some happier material act as a foreboding omen, as some of the sadder music on Barton Hollow did?
“Same Old Same Old” may hold the answer. Though it’s a prevailing bummer, there’s a sense of optimism. The lyrics (“I don’t wanna fight / But I’ll fight with you / If I have to”) suggest a necessary quarrel, one perhaps intended to alter the path they’ve been on in order to remain together in some way or other.
To that end, maybe that’s exactly what the Civil Wars needed to come back stronger than ever before.