The Civil Wars are currently not speaking to each other. The band has been plagued by rumors, have spoke of displaced ambition, and are suffering from a self-described case of internal discord. Yet, just a few weeks ago they released their highly anticipated follow up to the 2011 release “Barton Hollow.” They disbanded mid-tour in November of 2012, releasing a cryptic statement that left fans of the duo speculating the worst, so it was to everyones surprise when they released the dark and deep track “The One That Got Away.” The album it was to go on was recorded together, yet separately and amid intense emotions, to finish the material for the self-titled follow-up that fans didn’t see coming. The single itself came as a surprised and, upon its release, it became apparent to all that the tension between John Paul and Joy had seeped deeply into the very fabric of the music itself. The Civil Wars is an album of atmospheric feel, remaining ever acoustic and true to the bands original form, yet somehow darker and more mysterious. It is, without a doubt, their best work to date.
“The One That Got Away” is a haunting and remorseful track that rises up under the pounding, deeply engrained drum line, while Joy and John Paul blend their thoughts and voices together in the effortless way they always have. There’s tension, building and building until it breaks in the bridge, where just their voices layer over one another, calling out in desperation with no sense of hope. “I Had Me A Girl” allows John Paul’s emotional, bluesy voice to become the focal point for the first time on the album. The gritty electric guitar and harrowing drums pound down underneath his fluid melody, and frustration boils over as the story continues and he is wronged by the first woman he loved. By far one of the best and most emotional tracks on the album, possibly the most telling about the current state of the bands relationship, is “Same Old Same Old.” It is a tension-filled, stripped down emotional roller coaster that finds two people at a crossroads. They stand unsure how to proceed, asking for the hurt and same old pain to end, but unable to let it go. Their voices dance around one another, a gentle whisper into the violent decisive thoughts that come with a chaotic goodbye. On it’s own, it is a song about being desperate to let go, but unable to say goodbye to something you love deeply. It stands apart as one of the more tragic songs on the album in atmosphere alone. The way it makes you want to curl up and cry, even if you don’t know why you’re feeling so lost and alone.
There’s the painful “Dust to Dust,” an ode to trying to allow someone to come clean with their feelings despite the walls built around them. It is hopeful and sad at the same time, tenderness built on top of an inspiring message of togetherness that serves to heal the wounds of another. It’s a true duet, Joy taking one verse while John Paul takes the other, and you are able to experience the engaging and stunning marriage of their two voices colliding against one another. Acoustic track, “Eavesdrop” is lyrically inspiring with his dynamic imagery. In a song about holding on until the very last second and experiencing a closeness that might save you, The Civil Wars highlight one of their best assets, their ability to create a truly iconic image with nothing other than their words. They are songwriters that understand human emotion and possess an undeniably ability to convey that to the masses. “Let’s let the stars watch, let them stare. Let the wind eavesdrop, I don’t care. For all that we’ve got don’t let go…” the lyrics build right along with the explosive instrumentation, drums upon guitar upon vocals that sink into the same emotional discord that’s felt throughout the entire record. Your heart aches. You, the passive listener, still want to hold on for them.
They move into classic Americana and Folk styles on songs like “From This Valley,” “Oh Henry,” and “Devil’s Backbone” with religious conflicts and hope for a better place to go after this life is over. They sink into a distinctly Americana feel, call and repeat vocals, and a dissonant acoustic sound that is upbeat and hopeful despite who The Civil Wars are. They never fully stray from the sonic theme of the album, allowing the tension and uncertainty to remain in each and every track, even when they move away from their quintessential ballads. They return to these ballads with their cover of The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm,” drenched in sorrow and a loss of hope. It’s nothing more than a guitar and two voices, probably the most Barton Hollow-esque song on the entire album, though it still quite effortlessly fits into the feel of The Civil Wars. It is heartbreaking in its simplicity. Until the burst of sound at the end, it is allowed to sit and stir, a feat that so many musicians in the country market hardly ever allow their music to do. To sit just long enough so that you contemplate what you’re hearing, how it’s making you feel, before it turns on itself and completely takes you by surprise. The album finishes off with “D’Arline,” which takes on an almost demo-like sound, as if it was recording in a living room during a moment of musical creation between two people. It is simple, but it seems to capture the essence of The Civil Wars, and just what brought them to this point in the creative process.
Throughout all of this, their vocals are spot on, soaring over the sometimes basic instrumentation and other times building symphonies of sound. If there’s one thing they innately understand, it’s how to emote; a talent that seems built in to who each of them are as vocalists and musicians. There’s nothing forced, nothing contrived, it all appears so authentic and real. Despite what may or may not be going on between them, they still manage to allow their voices to sink into one another, making up the truly beautiful and awe-inspiring collection of songs that are The Civil Wars. And, what we can only hope, will be the spark that ignites the flame to keep these two talented individuals creating together.