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The Civil Wars: ‘The Civil Wars’ Album Review

ec338b0e22b3fd3af7a13a22e0b633b2 The Civil Wars: ‘The Civil Wars’ Album Review

Joy Williams and John Paul White’s rise to stardom and subsequent semi-break up as country folkers The Civil Wars reads like your typical rock and roll melodrama. (It’s telling that their song “If I Didn’t Know Better” was featured in the goddamn pilot of the ABC series Nashville, sung by two characters whose entire subplot is basically a re-imagining of their biography.) After connecting in a Music City recording studio “writing camp” back in 2008, The Civil Wars worked their way up the Nashville scene, eventually finding viral success with their 2009 EP Live in Eddie’s Attic. That paved the way for their Gold-certified, Grammy-winning 2011 debut Barton Hollow, which showcased the obvious talent and chemistry of Williams and White. And while they were never a couple — both are married with children — their best songs play off the will-they-or-won’t-they tension that fills the spaces between locked eyes and harmonized choruses. (I mean, look at these two as they sing “I don’t love you / But I always will” while performing “Poison & Wine.”)

Then, in late 2012/early 2013 they unceremoniously canceled a chunk of tour dates, and announced that they would no longer play together live. It wasn’t quite a breakup, but it was enough to seriously question their claim that they’d have new music for their fans this year. To everyone’s surprise, Williams and White somehow managed to get in the studio together, at the height of their mutual discontent, to record their highly anticipated sophomore self-titled album. What’s even more astonishing is that The Civil Wars (out ) is the duo’s most accomplished, nuanced and mature work yet, a searing country rock album that replaces the saccharine swathes of Barton Hollow with quaking, biblical levels of emotional turmoil.

That raw honesty is front and center from the album’s opening moments with the dark, smoky eruption of “The One That Got Away,” a cavernous thrasher that doesn’t have a hint of reconciliation, turning the breakup song trope into a defiantly selfish emotional reckoning, put on full display in the chorus: “Oh, if I could go back in time / When you only held me in my mind / Just a longing gone without a trace / Oh, I wish I’d never ever seen your face / I wish you were the one/ Wish you were the one that got away.”

The shit-kicking dust storm “Had Me a Girl” (co-produced by Rick Rubin, slipping his Johnny Cash American Recordings hat back on) is a boozy dirge that has both Williams and White singing about good, forgiving lovers that they either lost (“Like cigarette smoke / she came and she went” for White) or cheated on (“I slipped through his hands / to my back door man / under his chin” for Williams). The album is littered with songs like this that refuse to look away from emotional damage. The Civil Wars warp their slow-building country epics into thrilling new forms, like the bitter, swaggering epilogue of romantic ruin on “Oh Henry,” or the quiet, desolate climb of the Smashing Pumpkins‘ epochal “Disarm” (their “The killer in me is the killer in you” harmonization is hair-raising).

But it’s the power ballad duet “Same Old, Same Old” that basically symbolizes the smoldering rubble of the duo’s partnership. A gorgeously constructed slow burn, the track hits notes of genuine uplift with guitar and string swells while undercutting the widescreen grandeur with harshly resigned lyrics that pretty much dry the ink on the divorce papers: “I’m gonna break things / I’m gonna cross lines / I’m gonna wake up / Cause you won’t…Do I love you? / Oh I do / And I’m going to ‘til I’m gone / But if you think that I can stay in this / Same old, same old / Well, I don’t.”

Williams and White haven’t spoken since the album’s recording finished in the early spring of 2013, and it’s a damn shame that there’s little chance these songs will be performed any time soon. Regardless, The Civil Wars have left fans with what is undoubtedly the best album of their career, a lacerating, country-fried stomping exploration of emotional and creative collapse that never pulls its emotional punches.

Best Listened To: Drinking whiskey at 3:00 p.m. in a dive bar with your car packed up outside after a crushing breakup.

Idolator Score: 4/5

Patrick Bowman

 

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