Since Grammy Award-winning folk duo the Civil Wars canceled their European tour and announced a hiatus, the Internet has been awash with rumors of breakups, affairs, and record-label marketing ploys. Joy Williams and John Paul White are, by Williams’s own account, no longer speaking. It’s the stuff of delicious melodrama, and their new self-titled album productively harnesses the opacity of the pair’s partnership. The Civil Wars have gone from blithely conjuring a co-ed version of the Everly Brothers to making a tense, assertive Southern gothic album, complete with religious undertones, images of decaying locales, and tales of troubled relationships.
The Civil Wars is heavier and less spare than the group’s debut, Barton Hollow, but Williams and White nonetheless avoid hiding the obvious tension in the songs behind over-instrumentation or flashy production. On opener “The One That Got Away,” the first of a whole string of foot-stompers, Williams sings about a soured relationship over rumbling drum and bass and Dan Dugmore’s serrated pedal steel. White’s harmonies are hidden in the mix, but he gets his chance to rebut on “I Had Me a Girl,” an electrified drama with pulse-racing drums and a lyric-less hook dripping with psychosexual implication.
Midway through the album, the contemporary hymn “From This Valley” provides a respite from the dangerous, even occasionally funereal, tone and showcases what may be roots music’s best male/female vocal performance since Robert Plant and Alison Kraus twined their disparate voices on Raising Sand. Intimate yet divided, the album alternates between mournful ballads and bluesy rockers, with some country-pop thrown in for good measure. When Williams and White aren’t snarling at each other, they manage to share fragile harmonies, usually tinged with enough defiance or fatigue to avoid coming off as saccharine, as on “Dust to Dust.” Album closer “D’Arline,” recorded live, feels a bit uncooked, especially following on the heels of the delicately arranged “Sacred Heart,” with White’s guitar picking throwing off an ugly buzz. But it’s a moment of lo-fi dissonance that can easily be read as a deliberate and symbolic choice on which to end the album.