Album Review: The Civil Wars

image "If you’re not sad now, you’re gonna be," says John Paul White at the beginning of The Civil Wars’ 2009 live album.

And he’s right, throughout their career, most of the duo’s songs have been beautifully nostalgic. Some are vaguely hopeful, but few could be described as “happy.”

But with their appropriately titled sophomore album, The Civil Wars may have reached new levels of sadness.

Much of this can be attributed to the context surrounding the creation of the album. The Civil Wars saw a rapid rise to fame after the band’s 2011 release, Barton Hollow. The album found a place on several Billboard charts and “best albums of the year” lists and earned two Grammys. John Paul White and Joy Williams toured the U.S., Europe and beyond. It looked like The Civil Wars’ career was hitting its stride and was only headed up.

But in November, the duo cancelled a European tour and announced they were going on a hiatus, citing irreconcilable differences. With virtually no context for the action, fans were wondering if this was the last they would hear from their favorite band.

White and Williams went ahead with the album they had in the works, but the video for "The One That Got Away" shows the pair hardly making eye contact. Gone is the swaying, smiley Joy Williams. Gone are the occasional cracks in John Paul White’s gruffness. The tension is evident.

But The Civil War’s internal battles don’t diminish the band’s musical talent. The new album, which dropped Tuesday, is beautiful, smokey, haunting and apparently, as Williams told NPR, tells us more about the band’s troubles than either of the members are willing to talk about in prose.

Musically, the album almost parallels Barton Hollow. The Americana murder ballad, “Devil’s Backbone,” is somewhat similar to the first album’s title track. Like on Barton Hollow, there are several slower songs in the middle that tell of falling in and out of love, and toward the end, two covers (Etta James’ “Tell Mama” and Smashing Pumpkin’s “Disarm”), remind of the two covers that were bonus tracks on the band’s first release.

But this album is more raw and real. “I wish I’d never ever seen your face,” Williams sings on “The One That Got Away,” and you can hear the hurt and anger in her voice. “Same Old Same Old” speaks to the “ache of monogamy,” an honest confession of how hard it can be to stay and work on a long-term relationship when you want to leave. White pulls out his electric guitar for “I Had Me a Girl,” and the result is a smoldering, gritty story of regret and heartbreak. 

Even the more hopeful songs on the album, such as “Dust to Dust” and “Eavesdrop” have a sense of longing and nostalgia attached to them. The first, which Williams described as “an anthem for the lonely,” comes off a little flat with the tracked background. The second, though more of a love song, leaves a sad aftertaste. 

Though most of The Civil Wars content is sad, the pair always tried to throw in a few more upbeat songs to balance out their concerts or albums. The two more upbeat songs on the album, “From This Valley” and “Oh Henry” (It seems strange to describe a song threatening an unfaithful husband with murder as “upbeat,” but this is The Civil Wars, after all), are leftovers from touring before Barton Hollow

Overall, despite a somewhat strange ending with “D’Arline,” which was recorded on William’s iPhone and doesn’t fit with the rest of the album sound-wise, The Civil Wars delivered another beautiful, smokey album that is well-worth listening to and has been well received so far.

Let’s hope this won’t be the last we hear from Williams and White, whether together or on separate projects.