The Civil Wars’ latest album (last album?) is very appropriately titled “The Civil Wars.” I’d be remiss to not mention the civil war between band members John Paul White and Joy Williams, both of whom have not talked to each other since they abruptly cancelled their tour last fall. According to both Williams and producer Charlie Peacock the two can’t even be in the same room with each other right now.
And that is such a shame, because the Civil Wars make tremendous music together. White has been curiously mum on the whole situation, and Williams has taken it upon herself to speak and do interviews and the like. That’s all well and good, but to try and promote an album where the band isn’t even on speaking terms is virtually impossible without at least talking about what’s going on. I’ve read several interviews with Williams, and when she talks about the future of the Civil Wars she remains hopeful, but you can tell that this is the last thing we will ever hear from them as a unit. Williams has, occasionally, exploited the situation — whether to further her career or sell albums remains to be seen — and has been very open about what is going on without ever saying a bad word about White. Apparently they had differences in ambition, but there was also some long-standing tension between the two that finally boiled over and now they are at a place neither wants to repair what’s broken. So basically: even they don’t know what happened.
But man, if this album is any indication what we get when the two have problems, then bring it on. Peacock said that even though the two can’t stand to talk to each other, they still have that connection musically and remain committed to making the best music possible.
The whole album definitely feels like a break-up album: it’s moody and dark and complex and sexy and so, so complicated. Williams called it “the ache of monogamy” and I can totally see where she’s coming from. Williams and White have never been better and in “Same Old Same Old” we get lyrics such as “Do I love you/ Oh I do/ And I’m going to till I’m gone/ But if you think I can stay in this same old same old, well/ I don’t.” Powerful lyrics and the song plays as a duet with both voices taking control of the song, with neither one the clear lead. Another song, “Eavesdrop” is along the same kind of lines: “Oh who says it ever has to end/ Oh don’t say it’s over/ Oh no say it ain’t so.” Both song are so sad and lonely, when all of the sudden “Eavesdrop” goes from melancholy to a flat-out rock anthem toward the end.
It’s not all depressing and sad, however. Apart from “The One That Got Away” my favorite song on the album is “From This Valley.” This one sounds like a typical Civil Wars song with Williams and White’s harmonies at their best. “From This Valley” is a rousing, spiritual-type song with a nice southern flair. Strong vocals and harmonies, with, again, neither voice acting as lead, makes this one a strong contender for song of the year.
Williams and White wrote every song on the album, but they do have a sublime cover of the Smashing Pumpkins hit “Disarm.” This one is all John Paul’s with Williams’s haunting harmonies matching White’s ethereal, eerie, incredible voice. The song takes a bit to get into, but by the time the song reaches its climax it’s better than the original, which is incredibly high praise. The song is a great ear-splosion that I have listened to dozens of times. This is the only song on the album the duo performed live before they broke up, so look for it YouTube and be impressed.
Overall this album is much more elaborate instrumentally. Their debut EP was mostly acoustic driven, while this one has electric guitars and drums in many of the songs. It’s a great way for the band to stay who they are while also getting a little more creative. And as a result we get a wider range of music, that once again fails to be classified as one genre. Is it country? Blues? Rock? Who knows, and that’s what makes the album so fun. Yes, it’s sad and lonely, but it’s also incredibly angry and moody. There’s so many layers to the album, much like there’s so many layers to the story of White and Williams.
It’s a shame that Williams and White are going through such turmoil, because the Civil Wars are the best thing about today’s music. They make the music they want, and it’s some of the best, bravest music around. It’s a shame we will never see the two perform these songs live and see their chemistry on stage one last time. Who knows; maybe the two will reunite at the Grammys when they are inevitable nominated for every award next year. Until then, let’s listen and try to imagine how The Civil Wars can top this album.