[Album Review] The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars (2013)

The Civil Wars

After nearly two and a half years, folk/country duo The Civil Wars have released the follow up to their first LP Barton Hollow. Their self-titled record notes a seamless transition from the first album’s romantic, whimsical harmonies and guitar picking to a more angst-ridden, full band encompassed compilation. While Barton Hollow’s tone is overwhelmingly hopeful, each note laced with lighthearted longing and flirtation, The Civil Wars is an album built off of conflict, friction, and remorse. The differences are striking, yet the duo still maintains the artistic chemistry they are acclaimed for, even though their personal dynamic switched from natural and smooth to tumultuous over the past two years. I can’t help but analyze each of the songs individually and as they relate to each other, but rather than give a track by track review in accordance with my internal monologue, I’m opting to stick with the highlights.

The first single released from the album “The One That Got Away” features Joy Williams’s vocal talents more so than John Paul White’s, and the song holds a message only Williams can deliver. The song tells the story of a couple who only existed to play games with one another, the pain and thrill of the chase was what kept them together and was eventually what tore them apart. It’s difficult not to read into the lyrics of this song, as Williams has been quoted in a few interviews saying that the album holds the secrets to the duo’s crumbling relationship, but for now I’ll just be satisfied with its overall relatability to anyone who’s been around the romantic block a time or two.

“I Had Me A Girl” is perhaps the most rough-around-the-edges track of the album, full of angry guitar licks and a comparatively aggressive version of the call and response type vocals of their first album. White sings of a girl who brought out the worst in him while Williams tells about a boy who shed light on her dark ways and made her strive to be a better person. This song indicates another difference between this album and the first—many of the love stories they told through song on their previous release exhibit two people who are so romantically in sync with each other, but this particular song tells the same love story from two completely different perspectives, but even though the individuals are so inherently different, they’re still copasetic, at least in the beginning. The steel guitar gives this song a bluesy overtone, fitting perfectly with the story they’re telling.

“Same Old Same Old” is slower than the first two tracks, a nice break from the aggressive beginning of the album. This song is the most heartbreaking, I think; it’s about two people who love each other but their relationship is hurting more than it is helping them. The lyrics are essentially saying “I’ll love you until I stop breathing, but this situation is too poisonous to continue.” Of all of The Civil Wars’ new songs, this one gave me the most intense goose bumps—the harmonies add a new layer of tragedy to the already beautiful vocals. It’s almost exhausting to listen to, but in the best way possible. I can feel the pain in their voices, and that pain makes the song seem like they’re saying goodbye to each other.

“Dust to Dust” is very different from any track on either of their albums, at least musically. It’s full of synth drums and steady bass lines, very subtle and delicate in light of the heavier lyrics. This song has the classic Civil Wars call and response pattern I love so much, and the words aren’t blatantly romantic or vengeful but admiring and supportive. The melody is so elegant and simple; they don’t feel the need to belt a series of “oh’s” in the chorus, choosing instead to focus on communicating the main message of the song which essentially is “I know you’ve had a rough time, but I can help you through it if you let me.” While a majority of the album acts as a slap to the face, “Dust to Dust” is steadying hand resting on a shoulder.

“Eavesdrop” is another slowly building song saturated with pain and dread, moving backward in the stages of grief from the tone of “Same Old Same Old.” If that song was acceptance, “Eavesdrop” is denial and bargaining. While listening to this song, it becomes clear that a majority of the album is documenting the downfall of one relationship and is a last attempt to salvage something already on its way down the drain.

They recorded a song entirely in French, which I’m assuming Williams wrote the lyrics for since she’s the main vocalist yet again. “Sacred Heart” is the English name for the SacréCœur, a Roman Catholic cathedral located in the region Montmartre of Paris. The song sounds like a goodbye letter, the writer anticipating a painful separation, but hoping they’ll be able to meet again in their memories. The song itself is so romantic, whether or not you can understand the lyrics. Knowing that Paris is one of Williams’s favorite cities on the planet, it’s evident that this song has an abundance of hidden meaning, which is only assisted by the French lyrics.

The overall album goes through many hills and valleys; a certain somberness trails its way through each track and intricately aligns itself as the undertone to even the most upbeat and hopeful song “From This Valley.” Like they did on their first album, they included a cover amidst their original songs—last time they covered Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” but this time chose to record their rendition of “Disarm” by the Smashing Pumpkins. They have a way of taking another’s work and making it their own while staying true to the original artist’s intent with the song. Their version of “Disarm” gave me as many chills as the original version did the first time I heard it, and their success in giving that effect is a reflection of the Williams’s and White’s artistry.

I apologize for the overdramatic analogy, but like the Roman Empire, the internal dynamic of the Civil Wars rose with Barton Hollow and then fell with their self-titled album. After listening to the album at least ten times on loop, it became clear that this may very well be the last music The Civil Wars ever create together. For a ridiculously obsessive fan like me, this realization is heartbreaking. I was hoping it would seem more like a “see you later” than a blatant goodbye, but even so I’ll cherish this album for what it is: a fire the Civil Wars set to burn away the last of their animosity towards each other in order to move on with their lives. Will they ever cross paths on stage or in a recording studio again? It’s too soon to tell, but we, their fans, should be thankful for the gifts they’ve chosen to share with us. If Joy Williams and John Paul White never decide to collaborate again, this album serves as the perfect closure to one of many potential chapters in their respective careers, and I’m looking forward to their future pursuits.

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