In retrospect, choosing to call a band The Civil Wars might have been a mistake, as in this case it’s become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Even so, few would have anticipated the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White dissolving into internal strife quite so abruptly - riding a crest of unanticipated but richly deserved success for the rootsy country/folk of their debut, Barton Hollow, and amid work on its follow up the duo cancelled all of their remaining dates and called an indefinite hiatus, citing 'internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition'. Eight months on and nothing has been resolved - Williams and White still aren’t speaking. But while the civil war may continue, so - suprisingly - must The Civil Wars. Work on the new record was completed by producer Charlie Peacock, acting as a go-between for the estranged band members, although speculation abounds that John Paul White basically washed his hands of project, leaving his producer and bandmate to see it through to the end.
Everything is in place for The Civil Wars to be something of a classic. One of the reasons their debut was such a joy was its heart-on-the-sleeve honesty and the astonishing chemistry Williams and White could generate on stage, and in the vocal booth. To capture the failing of that partnership on record, as it happened, in real time, to channel those raw feelings into the songs as this band always have- that would be something quite magical indeed. We’re promised answers, Williams herself recently stated that 'if you want to know what happened to the band, listen to the album'. This could be pretty special.
Except it’s not that special at all. It’s quite good, don’t get us wrong, Williams and White could sing the god-awful Fifty Shades Of Grey sequels and make them sound compelling, but their second album lets itself down in two ways. Number one, by ditching some of the gutsy rawness of their debut for a smoother and more predictable country rock, and secondly by sidelining their internal issues. It feels like a huge missed opportunity. It’s with an air of growing disappointment that you pick through the 12 tracks that comprise The Civil Wars - not because of what is here, but because what isn’t.
It may be that that’s paying a disservice to what we DO have - this is a record not short of enjoyable moments. New single ‘The One That Got Away’ - which may make reference to the White/Williams internals strife though it’s by no means clear - has a heartfelt yearning to it, while White’s bluesy riff that drives ‘I Had Me A Girl’ really swings. The gentle ‘Dust To Dust’ is really very lovely, featuring a sparse piano, a barely-there electronic burble and swelling into a very lovely, yearning ballad, resting on the pairs innate chemistry and intertwining voices.
Most of the songs here deal with heartbreak and separation in some form or another, but it never feels as genuine as it did on Barton Hollow, which is weird when you consider there’s surely some actual angst they could be mining. Too many songs here could be written as token ballads for any one of today's pop princesses, and it’s with no small irony that you find yourself grasping for something with the creeping, intricate melancholy of the duo’s grammy-winning Taylor Swift collaboration ‘Safe and Sound’. It’s very telling that riff from‘The One That Got Away,’ which opens the records, sounds like one of Jon Bon Jovi’s late Eighties country ballads. Nowhere is this more apparent than on a cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ hymn to abused childhood ‘Disarm’, which cuts all of the desperate fury from Billy Corgan’s original, and reduces it to a genteel, slightly depressed lullaby.
The Civil Wars isn’t a disaster: Williams and White’s voices and innate sense of melancholy remain, as does some measure of their chemistry. It is occasionally beautiful as it reaches its denouement, and has some sense of swing and drive in its first third. Had you never heard its predecessor it could even be impressive, but by promising us more it has guaranteed us less. This is a limping, bloodless version of The Civil Wars, and if the band is to have a future they need to fix their issues, or else learn to channel the damage better.
5Marc Burrows's Score