Taylor Swift disses exes with singalong choruses, Rihanna duets with her abusive beau, but no pop act makes outsize romantic dysfunction sound as extravagantly pretty as the Civil Wars, the folk-pop-country-rock duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White. Darker and more intense than their Grammy-winning debut, their second LP solidifies a drama-heavy brand identity reflected in their band name. And that identity apparently extends to their personal lives, too – the pair say they were never a romantic item, but the band is on hiatus due to “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.” At last check, they weren’t even on speaking terms.
The self-released Barton Hollow was one of 2011’s biggest surprises, a mostly acoustic set built around the dazzlingly breathy, seductive, stop-motion harmonies of Williams, a reformed Christian-pop singer from California, and White, a rock & roll striver from Alabama, who came together at a Nashville songwriting workshop. The songs set such potent moods, TV and film music supervisors snapped them up. The group’s collaboration with superfan Taylor Swift for the Hunger Games soundtrack, “Safe & Sound,” led the megastar down a whole new road of vocal emoting, and suggested that the duo, in their hushed way, have something in common with big-box, boy-girl country acts like Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town.
The lead single from the new LP, “The One That Got Away,” is a perfect example of their craft: “I never meant to get us in this deep,” Williams sings soberly, fading to a whisper, over mandolin, guitar, Jerry Douglas’ trademark dobro cries and pedal-steel dread from veteran Linda Ronstadt sideman Dan Dugmore. Then White comes in, sharing the rue while dumping gas on their morning-after coals.
Even sexier, in a similarly tortured way, is “I Had Me a Girl,” with White moaning in the moonlight about an unfaithful lover who taught him to “pray” and who, to judge from the fevered harmonies – “Oooooooo/Ooooooohhhhohhhh/Oooooo/Ooooohhhhhhhhh” – is evidently quite skilled at it. Co-produced by country-rock doctor Rick Rubin, it’s the pair’s most aggressive track to date, heartsick electric guitar searing while tom-tom beats whomp like cardiac thunder.
The record could use more tracks like this, where the instrumental drama matches the lush, scenery-eating vocals. Their voices carry “Same Old Same Old,” a nuanced look at fighting through a relationship dead-end. But “Devil’s Backbone” doesn’t rise beyond its old-time-religion tropes, and the covers are more curious than compelling: a slow-motion take on Etta James’ steamy “Tell Mama,” and a floaty take on Smashing Pumpkins‘ “Disarm.” Yet even here, the psychosexual pulse is palpable, the gorgeous timbres and harmonies never less than impressive. It makes you hope they can work their business out. Because as expressive as their individual voices are, the Civil Wars may well be greater than the sum of their warring parts.