If Joy Williams weren’t the distaff half of the Grammy-winning Civil Wars, Venus might play like a late 20th century single-sex college’s elite women’s studies program’s exploration of female tropes and a deep dive on scorned loverhood. Given the mystery and extended silence about the demise of the stark musical duo, many songs here read like whispered innuendo about what really happened.
Listening to “What A Good Woman Does” traces a razor-drawn portrait of the end of a relationship. Williams contends she won’t say, but then raises the ante with “I could tell the truth about you leaving.” It is fraught, almost evocative of Jane Austen in its abject emotionalism, but there is also a buoyant strength to her. Before the almost-threat, the singer announces, “I haven’t lost my voice without you near me.”
Step away from the potential “he said, she said” drama that cloaks these songs, and you have a survey course in post-modern female pop icons—Florence Welch without the overt power, Tori Amos without the unfettered emotion, or Kate Bush without the thrilling trill. For Williams, beyond the smoking wreckage of what was, she shows a deep desire to connect musically to the women artists shaping the current realm of pop music.
Using machined rhythm tracks, there is the distance of EDM on Venus—something not so blood and guts. Yet, in the detachment, a certain honesty arises. “Before I Sleep” swells against the beat, pressing on, facing down demons in her mind. Somehow the coldness of the groove heightens the torment that she feels.
The multi-cultural rhythms of “Woman (Oh Mama)” juxtapose the quick burst of vocal lines—often two or three words—to build an essential portrait of what women are made of. With the world music undertow bordering on Peter Gabriel, it evokes the sacrificial female self of “What A Good Woman Does.”
There is bottomless romance and regret on Venus with songs like “You Loved Me” and “Not Good Enough.” But mostly, it is the churn of something gone terribly wrong. Was it the Civil Wars? Her personal life tossed about on the demands of fame? Trying to sort out the meaning? And what of her husband/manager?
“One Day I Will” leans into the search, while owning the anger, as “Till Forever” suggests we are always an amalgamation of our experiences. Honesty is its own reward, perhaps. Though even “Welcome Home,” tentative in its resolution, doesn’t seem confident in the outcome. Until the next collection, however, this is what we have.