The Civil Wars explore the mystifying world of adult relationships

One of the more heartening developments in country music recently has been the success of the singer-songwriter duo The Civil Wars, who walked away with a Grammy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance in 2012, while their debut album, “Barton Hollow,” won for Best Folk Album.

Comprised of veteran solo performers Joy Williams and John Paul White, the group seems to be one of those rare bindings of seemingly incompatible talents that produces something far stronger and more complex than either artist would be capable of alone.

It’s exactly that merging and delicate weave of personalities that gives The Civil Wars music its bracing allure. While their songs delve into the sonically-rich loam of folk, classic country and blues from White’s native Alabama, there are also hints of the pop and gospel influences that form the basis of Williams’ past solo work.

But it’s the voices, and the stories they carry, that give the work its frission of uniqueness even as the music and its ancient melodies work as a nearly subliminal reminder of the past.

And it’s there, in that past, that one has to search for references to the deceptively simple alchemy Williams and White have achieved in these songs. The ache of the seminal Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris duets is an obvious touchstone, but the wilder, keening sounds of the Louvin Brothers and The Carter Family as well as the smooth Motown soul of Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell can also be heard in the vowel bending urgency of rawer, blues-drenched numbers such as the title track and “Birds of a Feather.”

It’s a testament to the musical chemistry on display that the duo can converge, separate or weave patterns around one another’s voices seemingly at will, like jazz soloists improvising within a common framework.

Those voices give resonance to the songs on “Barton Hollow,” which inhabit a universe that, both musically and lyrically, could hardly be more alien to the current trend of drab, watered-down ’70s rock and factory-line hokum that passes for country music these days. The duo have, amazingly, crafted songs that delve into the darkest recesses of adult relationships, corners even George Jones and Tammy Wynette never peered into, without giving in to dull melodrama or overblown histrionics.

Their take on matters of the heart is actually strikingly similar to underground rock icons Tom Waits and Nick Cave, their subtle yet sharp-toothed vision of love serving as a reminder that country music was once a vehicle for exploring themes such as suicide, betrayal and all the little ways two people in love torture one another.

There’s a paradox, a small, punishing twist of the knife that takes place in their best songs: “Where she walks no flowers bloom, But who could do without you?” (Birds of a Feather); “Try to convince me that I’m not drowning, Oh, let me tell you I am.” (Falling); “You can sink to the bottom of the sea, just don’t go without me.” (C’est La Mort).

Take your life, but take me with you.  Love me, but leave me alone. You’re killing me, but I can’t live without you: These songs scream, whisper and plead all this and more, from multiple angles and reflections, sometimes within the same breath.

There are moments when the duo gives voice to the frightening confusion of personalities that can take place within the hermetic intensity of a relationship:

Sometimes I can’t tell where I am

Where he leaves off and I begin.”

Williams and White invest those lines with such dread that one fails to notice they could have been lifted from any tale of sweetly crooned, teenage puppy love. “This is no game for children,” those voices seem to be saying. “This is emotional chess as played in the Twilight Zone.”

And then there’s “Poison and Wine,” the song that first gained The Civil Wars attention outside of the singer-songwriter community. An arsenic-laced confection wherein the knife is no longer simply turned but plunged through the heart of two strangers masquerading as lovers, the song plays out as a secret conversation between their true, hidden selves, male and female trading off one sadly brutal line after another:

“You only know what I want you to

I know everything you don’t want me to

Oh, your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine

You think your dreams are the same as mine”

And then the denouement:

“Oh, I don’t love you but I always will”

In both content and execution, The Civil Wars would seem to be without peers in the realm of mainstream country music, where they’ve made significant inroads. It will be interesting to see how success affects Williams’ and White’s seductively jaundiced vision, if they’ll still allow the sharp edges of life to cut through the graceful harmonies and melodic hooks that sooth and temper even their darkest songs.

As part of the growing fan base—one could plausibly say cult—which has come to appreciate their refreshingly honest voices, I can only hope they’ll keep their knives, and tongues, sharpened.

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One Response to “The Civil Wars explore the mystifying world of adult relationships”

  1. […] and female trading off one sadly brutal line after another: … … Follow this link: The Civil Wars explore the mystifying world of adult relationships … ← CMT : News : Daddy Songs: A Dozen Memorable Salutes and […]

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