The Civil Wars, “The Civil Wars” (Columbia)
It’s hard to listen to Joy Williams and John Paul White sing lyrics like “don’t say it’s over” on The Civil Wars’ new disc and not think of the big picture.
Just as they release their self-titled second album — one that consolidates their strengths and has the potential to be huge — comes word that their professional relationship may be irretrievably broken. No one knows if they will work together again.
If that’s the case, “The Civil Wars” will go down as a pop music tragedy.
Williams and White add more power to their acoustic base here, and the lead single “The One That Got Away” fits comfortably within the music driving the current folk-rock commercial boom. Some increased instrumentation does not sacrifice the beauty of their vocal chemistry.
Their songs cast love and loss in spiritual terms. “Oh, Lord, what do I do,” Williams sings on “Devil’s Backbone.” ”I’ve fallen for someone who’s nothing like you.” Prince would appreciate White’s sentiments on the sensual “I Had Me a Girl” when he sings: “That woman taught me to pray. I saw heaven every day.”
A little taste of success made this duo confident, not timid, as is often the case on second albums. This is an assured and focused set of songs. If anything, it’s too focused, and Williams goes a little overboard on the breathy dramatics.
It’s toward the end where you sense the real possibilities of this act. “Disarm” is a sublime cover of a Smashing Pumpkins song, an unlikely choice by a band with one foot firmly in acoustic country. “D’Arline” is a stripped-back tune recorded on an iPhone on Williams’ porch that shows off the duo’s simple charms.
The two songs prove they have the taste and ability to try many different directions in a full and satisfying career. Success on a large scale, which would certainly be in reach if The Civil Wars worked hard over an extended period to get this disc heard, would give them the freedom to go anywhere they want musically.
Instead, it looks like The Civil Wars may be the one that got away.