The Civil Wars (Folk-duo consisting of Singer/Songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White) first broke into the mainstream on The Hunger Games Soundtrack with ‘Kingdom Come,’ bringing their precise vocal harmonies, heartfelt lyrics, and acoustic-driven Pop to the world stage. With their latest self-titled release, Williams and White not only expand upon their previous work, but eclipse it entirely.
Despite what initial images the album opener ‘The One That Got Away’ might elicit, this isn’t your usual Katy Perry-esque lamentation of missed opportunities and lost loves – this is a flat-out rejection of such – rueing not the day “the one” left, but rather, rueing the day they didn’t. This paradigm shift in the songwriting process is one that not many listeners are accustomed to, a lyrical curve ball of gut-wrenching truth reflecting the not-so-happy-ending of the fairytale model, driven home by brooding instrumentation and William’s haunting vocal.
The album is a hodgepodge of Folk sentiment, Blues rhythms, and Country story-telling, the musical equivalent of a gumbo or crawfish boil, where all the elements fuse and absorb each other while still maintaining both their individual identity and unique flavor profile. ‘The Civil Wars’ sustains a level of authenticity and honesty in its approach that is likely to appease the purists, all the while maintaining a pop sensibility that appeals to mainstream audiences, and it is this duality of purpose that has perpetuated their continued success.
Although Williams and White have expanded their sound on this release with the addition of drums, select distortion, and various other backing instruments to further fill in the gaps, they certainly have not forgotten their minimalistic roots. Tracks like ‘Dust to Dust’ and ‘D’Arline’ fully showcase the vulnerability that has become their calling card – the latter being almost exclusively acoustic, (save for a muted drum pattern) and the former being a live acoustic recording (devoid of touch-ups and studio production). A balancing act such as this requires a deft hand to execute properly, as well as the ability to recognize when to push forward and when to pull back. The Civil Wars do just that on this release, providing the listener with a harmonious experience throughout (in terms of both vocals and arrangement alike).
True to their namesake (and to the ire of their devoted fan base) The Civil Wars have undergone their own Civil War, so to speak. With both Joy Williams and John Paul White not on good terms (and content to call it quits) the fate of their partnership hangs in the balance. This tension is on display in full throughout, making the album all the more powerful in light of this news. Though the fate of The Civil Wars has yet to be determined, the one thing that remains with utmost certainty is this: If this is to be their swan song, it is heard loud and clear.