The secular blossoming of The Civil Wars’ Joy Williams

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.

 
 

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Hey there. Great piece. I’m wondering if you could expand on your Judges reference. You wrote: “In fact, like Jesus in the Biblical book of Judges, the themes lie in what is not there far more than what is there.” I feel like there is a good thought packed in there, but I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at.

Sure, Todd. Judges is a devastating book. Jesus looms large in it because there is this massive hole where he should be. The account of the murdered and dismembered girl, for instance, includes several forward looking references to Jesus actually. It’s the epitome of something being “conspicuous in its absence.” Though not nearly as intense as that, I pick up a theme in many of this album’s songs that true love is missing - and what the characters are left with is just passion. (To over simplify…)

Great post. When I first heard this song I thought for sure it was some other Joy Williams. Not many Christian artists can make the transition from the shallows of CCM pop to the deeper waters of Indie artistry. If their “musical marriage” is going to work, the music has to feel real—true artists know how to perform a song, not just sing it. I really like The Civil Wars and am ready to hear more, especially as they grow musically and lyrically beyond the limits of their name.

Ah, I get it now. I knew you had a bigger meaning there I just kept re-reading the sentence to try to see what I was missing. Thanks!

Wow. I hope that is not an accurate description of their music. If it is, Count me out. “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.” Unrelenting lugubrious emotional solipsism set to banjo! Days of our Lives on a 6-string Gibson. Which is not far off because now I see that a Civil Wars song was used on the last episode of the soap opera, Gray’s Anatomy. My apologies, I’m an old guy. I’m just giving you a visceral response.

I really liked this blog post from Charlie Peacock about the production of the album. (Peacock has worked in CCM for several decades, which explains his reference to having done the kind of production he derides here)

http://recordproducer.typepad….

I also love the album, though I haven’t given a lot of thought to it’s lyrical themes. I do not find it unrelenting or lugubrious.

Lugubrious; Mournful, dismal, or gloomy, especially to an exaggerated or ludicrous degree….

The reviewer calls these songs “psycho-emotional civil war” and “As an exploration of the damage and devastation left after warring parties have left the field of battle.”

By unrelenting, I mean; The reviewer says, “SONG AFTER SONG” (unrelenting) 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.” I am not saying they are not good musicians or talented artists. Just morose.

As the reviewer says, “there are few answers, if any, to be found” in these songs. I’m just not a big fan of songs without hope. Even if it is “conspicuous by its absence”. “Jesus looms large” because He is not here?

Maybe some like mucking about in the “murky mire” of people that never experience love or peace…people that are shipwrecks in song after song. To each his own. For what it’s worth I listened to a few songs on line and they lived up to the reviewers description. Lots of navel gazing and exploration of feelings. Hard to dance to.

I think music is a good way to engage melancholy reality of living in sin (and potential hope found within). I prefer it to melancholy film. And I think the Bible gives us reason to consider these stories, like those in Judges.

That’s fine with me if you don’t enjoy it, but it’s no reason to be so dismissive. Your “unrelenting and lugubrious” is someone else’s “sustained melancholy.”

Fair comment. These are areas of taste. I am not trying to be dismissive I am trying to engage with the reviewer’s comments, the lyrical content of the songs themselves and the degree of musicality, which I appreciate. Sustained Melancholy it is! Thanks.

I was unaware until now that Joy had used christian music as a vehicle for her talent. Like many, I find christian music’s forays into pop (or even worse hard rock) ridiculous, misguided and somewhat hypocritical. However, the fact that Joy Williams once sang sappy songs about non-existent beings and historical inaccuracies in no way diminishes her undeniable talent, her unaffected sensuality, or her potential for a career in the big leagues of music. I say that we should not hold it against someone because they were once young and naïve enough to believe in fairytales and even sing about them…we’ve all made mistakes, the important thing is that we learn from them, which perhaps she has.

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