Pressure makes diamonds—or coal dust. For The Civil Wars, the triple Grammy-winners whose stark acoustica shook pop music, it created both. Amongst their partnership’s wreckage, their sophomore album lands, shards of broken relationships, even more extreme folk filigrees and strong strumming to mark the path to implosion.
When Barton Hollow announced a new day for post-modern Americana, with a broader sweep, a starker sort of anguish, Joy Williams and John Paul White seemed poised at the peak of a dank Appalachian gothiness that balanced the Carter Family and Evanescence, while opening the door for the Mumford & Sons/Lumineers’ folk-roots revolution.
Two years of constant touring, the intense promotional drive and increasingly divergent aspirations caused the cancellation of a European tour with the tersely blunt “due to internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition” explanation.
Music is a great healer, as evidenced by The Civil Wars. What couldn’t be resolved between the pair fertilized a collection of songs about alienation, loss, frustration, capitulation and the shattered intimacies of intense collaboration.
The exhaustion and need for reconciliation permeating “Eavesdrop,” an autoharp-strummed bit of build that beseeches the other for connection, is as desperate as it is spent. Williams’ whispered “just hold me…” drifts prayer-like over the outro as a tragic tag, operatic in nature, but more reserved in delivery.
Blazing electric guitars on “I Had Me A Girl,” suggest the intensity of their struggle, eschewing politeness for brazen buzz as the swirling murk of “Devil’s Backbone” is a miasma of foreboding and murder balladry. The en francais “Sacred Heart” is precious but sweet, while “From This Valley”’s sweeping Celticism and rising gospel makes good on Williams’ Christian roots.
Working with producer Charlie Peacock, in spite of discord, the pair refine and expand the sound they architected into a more intense take on their tortured (implied) sexual tension. Whether slowing down Etta James’ classic “Tell Mama” to a smooth invocation instead of raw lustiness, the revelation of monogamy’s potential passion on “Same Old Same Old” or the cheatin’ confrontation “Oh Henry,” White and Williams aren’t afraid to put it out there.
“I wish you went away, I wish you were the one that got away,” Williams grieves on the faltering, dobro-laced lament “The One That Got Away,” their first single. Not quite a dirge, recriminations drip, harmonies hang like a guillotine, raising tension and regret to high art.
“Disarm”’s hush is miles from Billy Corgan’s original, balming the pain as White’s strained hickory voice entwines with Williams’ silvery wispiness. “The killer in me is the killer in you” seems a fitting elegy for a duo not currently speaking.