As the Civil Wars, Joy Williams and John Paul White share an easy charm that has won over audiences in a big way. Often spare and rooted in folk and country, their music is the kind of Americana elixir that goes down awfully smooth. So smooth that Adele took them on the road a few years ago, and Taylor Swift recorded a duet with them. They were a hit with both artists’ fans, too. Grammy Awards and an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival ensued.
On the Civil Wars’ new self-titled album, their sophomore release, they take a new direction borne out of growing pains. The record follows a statement from the duo late last year in which they canceled a tour, citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.” It’s still not clear what their status is; Williams recently told USA Today that they’re essentially on hiatus.
Maybe that explains the tension that fills “The Civil Wars,” giving the songs a sense of weight and purpose that wasn’t apparent on their 2011 debut, “Barton Hollow.” There are dirge-like murder ballads (“Devil’s Backbone”), ruminations on how to make relationships last (“Same Old Same Old”), and even a sensual, slow take on Etta James’s fiery “Tell Mama.”
They enlisted Charlie Peacock to produce again, but the difference is that their performances, particularly given the uncertainty of their future together, have a compelling desperation about them. It would be a shame if “The Civil Wars” were their final album, but it would also be a graceful swan song for a duo so beloved for such a quality. (Out Tuesday)
ESSENTIAL “Same Old Same Old”