The Civil Wars are a new pairing of previously established artists. John Paul White, a veteran of the indie Americana and folk scene, pairs with former Contemporary Christian pop ingénue Joy Williams in what might be one of the most thorough transformations of a CCM act since Leslie Phillips became Sam Phillips in the late 1980s.
As with Phillips, this transformation is much for the better and sets Williams up for a fascinating Act Two in her musical career. Fans of her CCM work may struggle to comprehend the change, though, as Williams embodies a sensuality and relational transparency not welcomed in the Christian music realm.
The full-length debut by Nashville’s newest buzz group slips seamlessly into the locally- grown, no-frills, modern-folk groove recently reinvigorated by the likes of The Swell Season and Fleet Foxes. The melodies are romantic and haunting; the harmonies ambient and soulful. The instrumentation is minimal, often only an acoustic or classical guitar with hard-to-identify light percussion and the occasional piano or steel guitar. With the exception of the bluesy energy of the title track, a rueful stomp in the old southern style, the songs all hover around the middle, working well as pretty wallpaper if allowed to, but offering a truly satisfying lyrical element for those who choose to engage. In all these ways The Civil Wars stick dutifully to the Americana prescription, managing to create something truly transcendent well within its boundaries.
Though definitely soul children of another era of American music, The Civil Wars are no nostalgia act. There are no antebellum affectations or songs about the actual War Between the States. The concept here is clearly about the struggle between individuals within relationships and individuals within themselves. Call it a psycho-emotional civil war if you will, but the metaphor certainly works. In song after song the two writers delve deeply into the murky mire that shipwrecks inter-personal connections and prevents individuals from finding love and peace with others, or even themselves.
As is common with folk music (though not Christian music,) there are few answers, if any, to be found. In fact, like Jesus in the Biblical book of Judges, the themes lie in what is not there far more than what is there. Love fails, possibly because it was never truly love in the first place. Lovers lose interest, or will, and their hearts wander. Ghosts of guilt and betrayal haunt our heroes in a way that any honest adult will relate all too clearly with, whether their religiosity allows them to publically or not.
The perceived intimacy between Williams and White, both in the songs themselves as well as live performances and music videos, serves to deepen their songs’ ache and passion. The fact that the two are married, but not to each other, has already proven off-putting to many Christian fans. There is certainly a chemistry between the two; one that serves well to underscore the difference between true, devotional, sacrificial love and simple human sexual response. If the voices delivering the songs are characters in a sort of musical play, the plot is certainly a tragedy. The fact that both actors are happily married off-stage should not come as a surprise to thinking fans, but it will.
This is not music for the faint of heart or the hard of soul. As an exploration of the damage and devastation left after warring parties have left the field of battle, however, it is a most powerful experience.