As The Civil Wars, Joy Williams and John Paul White shot from obscure folk singers to heavyweight country-crossover contenders, picking up two Grammys for their debut, Barton Hollow, and collaborating with Taylor Swift for The Hunger Games soundtrack. But last November, the group abruptly canceled all planned tour dates, citing “irreconcilable differences of ambition,” a description that framed the upheaval as more divorce than artistic disagreement. The unfortunate irony—a duo named after internecine conflict descending into cold silence—only kicked up anticipation when the group surfaced with new material. The history didn’t just threaten to overtake the music that one time, either—it’s still very much the ongoing story of The Civil Wars, considering White isn’t promoting the record, and Williams says the two aren’t currently speaking and have no plans to tour or record beyond this album.
The first song off The Civil Wars’ self-titled sophomore album engages directly with this turmoil. “The One Who Got Away,” with its accompanying videos of tensely staged studio footage and the implosion that graces the album cover, confronts the narrative with the most bombastic track the duo has recorded to date, building to a thunderous final chorus. It plays like Johnny Cash and June Carter after a few bottles of whiskey as produced by Rick Rubin (who, luck would have it, co-produced the very next track, “I Had Me A Girl”). That song, the first single, continues the hazy, seemingly doomed chemistry between Williams and White—a thematic sequel to the group’s 2009 cut “If I Didn’t Know Better,” another mournfully regretful, booze-soaked lament to bad decisions. That just-out-of-reach romantic chemistry is what makes The Civil Wars electric to watch onstage—White is a married father of four, while Williams had her first child last year—and the mysterious nature of strife between the once-budding hitmakers belies how naturally they complement each other.
Barton Hollow rarely reached outside the stripped-down and beautifully constructed arrangements of the duo’s vocals over White’s steam-engine acoustic guitar, chugging along underneath. Over the course of the first six tracks here, the band branches out with much fuller instrumentation, adding stomping percussion (“I Had Me A Girl”), string arrangements (“Devil’s Backbone”), and even electronic tinges on “Dust To Dust.” The record alternates between beauty and discord, hope and strife, with an echoing space that brings the vocals close together and also emphasizes the distance between Williams and White. On “Same Old Same Old,” White begins, “I want to leave you / I want to lose us / I want to give up / But I won’t,” and Williams replies, “I want to miss this / I want a heartache / I want to run away / But I won’t,” as they intertwine an effective storyline while acknowledging the trope. These two may not see eye to eye on everything, but when they sing together, it has the same excitement of lightning in a bottle.
There are still the old standbys—material that feels like it came from a different set of sessions, perfunctory album fillers like “Oh Henry” or “Disarm.” But even in the quieter moments, like Williams’ dreamy French lead vocal on “Sacred Heart” and album closer “D’Arline,” there’s the sense that such raw, bare emotion has enabled The Civil Wars to delve deep to intricate details, but also to amplify the internal conflict to greater heights.
The Civil Wars isn’t a great leap forward—it’s significantly front-loaded for one thing, fading through the back half of the album. Still, it’s is a sign that if Williams and White can move past whatever backroom squabbling got them into an indefinite hiatus and an obligatory yet promising second record, they could actually accomplish something impressive on a grander scale.