The Civil Wars – ‘The Civil Wars’ ALBUM REVIEW

History is littered with the shards left behind fractious relationships within bands, however this hasn’t always led to the diminishing quality of the musical output. If anything the result of inner conflict can sometimes produce wonderful pieces of work. Little over eight months after cancelling an entire tour due to “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition”, The Civil Wars have seemingly downed arms and reconciled to offer another taste of their blend of moody American-folk with a dash of dark Country.

The duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White met in 2008 at a song-writers camp in Nashville and in 2011 their debut album Barton Hollow was greeted with world-wide acclaim culminating in two Grammy awards (Best Folk Album and Best Country Duo). Despite a heady 2012 their working relationship seemed to have broken down by the end of the year, so it was with some surprise that in June of this year they released the single The One That Got Away, which is the opening track of the new album.  Over delicately poised and haunting guitars (that could possibly be rising from the dark smoke that adorns the front cover), Williams’ vocals expose their raw emotion as she sings ‘I never meant to get us in this deep / I never meant for this to mean a thing’. The refrain also points at the ambiguity of the singers’ relationship, adding another depth of poignancy and intrigue which exists throughout the album. It’s one of the strongest tracks on the record and builds to a powerful crescendo for the chorus, where White’s powerful vocals provide a wonderfully tight harmony.

Whilst their debut album was a stripped-back affair affording them little space to hide their vocals, this album has a lot more instrumental depth without smothering the superb individual and harmonic melodies. I Had Me a Girl is a superb example of their individual vocal abilities standing out against a back-drop of boisterous guitars, and then forming a rich harmony for the oooohs that separate each other’s verses. Another stand-out track is Devil’s Backbone with Williams taking reign of the initial vocals whilst White’s subtle harmony helps weave a sonic tapestry that glides neatly over the moody background instruments.

The quieter and more slower-paced tracks such as Same Old Same Old and Dust to Dust ignite memories of their debut album, and provide a neat contrast against the more lively numbers like Oh Henry and I Had Me a Girl. Once again they show that they’re not afraid to tackle a cover (on Barton Hollow they covered Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love) and here they do justice to Smashing Pumpkins’ Disarm. Slowed-down with a finger-picked guitar their version adds even more weight to the lyrics as they hang in the air like wounded statements. As they both join together to sing ‘the killer in me, is the killer in you’, the sentiment stirs up the flames of their quite obvious turbulent past.

The album’s final song D’arline settles back into a very lo-fi groove with just the duos vocals placed over an awkwardly played guitar. It seems fitting that like their surprising return to the musical world the track is understated whilst being filled with painful reminder of the hardships that go with relationships, “You always said you want me to be happy / But happiness was having you here with me / You’ll always be the one that’s standing in my way”. Given the positive reception the album has already been given by fans it may be time for the Civil Wars to agree on a long-standing peace treaty.

Allan Nersessian