Look at those two. Attractive. Mysterious. Mystifying. Serious. A perfect visual image to reflect the sounds conceived by their brilliant collective minds.
Meet Joy Williams and John Paul White: The Civil Wars. If the name Joy Williams rings a bell, but you can’t quite place it, I’m about to blow your mind.
That’s right. She’s that adorable little thing from mid 2000’s Christian Top 40 radio. Over the last ten years, she’s grown up, gotten hitched, and become a massive CCM star. Then, one fateful day in 2008, she met singer/songwriter John Paul White. The two found themselves having a little jam session at a Nashville studio, and decided to go play some improvised gigs. They realized they have something special, and now the whole world gets to reap the benefits of that realization. It should be noted that the “something special” they found was purely platonic, given that the two already had spouses. Although if you youtubed a couple of their live performances, you wouldn’t believe me.
Williams’ bold career move reminds me a lot of what Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman did back in 2007. Like them or not, I don’t need to remind you of how big Switchfoot was back in 2003. After The Beautiful Letdown dropped that year, it was difficult go anywhere without hearing “Meant to Live” or “Dare You to Move.” Sometimes it felt like there were Foreman clones DJ-ing every station: restaurants, radio, department stores, dental offices. So what does one of the top Christian rock stars do whilst riding along the peak of his fame and success? He starts a solo indie-folk project. And it was bold and beautiful. Young and restless. A guiding light. Insert soap-opera name here.
So here’s Williams, meeting White, being all “let’s do that.” And the collective talent behind this collaboration is, to put it simply, remarkable. From the first line in “20 Years” all the way through the final track, a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” the duo’s harmonies serenade us into bliss. Both singers’ voices have such a raw energy, yet an incredible purity, with just a tinge of sadness. This is clearly a much more raw and unleashed Williams than the cute little Christian pop star she once was. It’s as if she sat down with White and said “I’ve been used to singing over the poppy instrumental gimmicks for ten years. This time, I just want to sing,” to which White responded “Totally, Joydog.” This isn’t to say that Williams’ music prior to Wars wasn’t good. In fact, I like it quite a bit. One could argue that she was the Michelle Branch of the CCM scene. But something incredible happens when a singer with Williams’ talent dials down the overproduced instrumentation and lets her voice speak for itself.
The first half of the album is simply delightful, equipped with both thoughtful and clever lyrics. “I’ve Got This Friend” speaks to the hopeless romantic in all of us, telling the story of two strangers who would be destined for love, if only they met. Similarly, “To Whom it May Concern” serves as a moving love letter from an author who hasn’t found that love yet. The themes may seem tired or clichéd on the surface, but Williams and White use their own duality to present them in a fresh, unique package. The light acoustics and catchy hooks service the lyrics wonderfully. But ultimately, it’s the singers’ breathtaking harmonies and duets that shine the brightest. The album skips along, giving us present after present. And then we hit Barton Hollow, the game changer.
For better and for worse, Barton Hollow changed how I viewed the Civil Wars. It’s easily this album’s most cathartic moment, crawling into your skin and refusing to leave the second the opening harmony hits your bloodstream. Thus far on the album, we’ve been chilling on a porch, bouncing through light little acoustic gems. Then, we take the shot of single-barrel Kentucky bourbon that is Barton Hollow, and it, in turn, takes our breath away. We get transported to the dirty south, a land far different than rest of the world, and we’ll make due cooking our own supper by campfire somewhere out in the Appalachian woods. Cuz we’re on the run. Yeah, we did somethin’ baaaaddddd. (Ain’t going back to Barton Hollow/Devil gonna follow me e’er I go/Won’t do me no good washing in the river/Can’t no preacher man save my soul)
The thing about this brilliantly dark treat is that it only comes once. The song stands aside from the rest of the album in its style. Williams and White absolutely cut loose on this one, and when two excruciatingly talented singer/songwriters cut loose and go bold, everyone wins. But why only once? Why not give us three Barton Hollows? Maybe four? Perhaps an entire album?
There is little wrong with the rest of the album. The soft acoustic folk thing is wonderful, and works well for the duo. But when we hear them do this, and do it this well, it seems unusual that they wouldn’t have explored it more. It’s like watching a street juggler toss bowling pins for twenty minutes, then all of a sudden pull out flaming knives and juggle them with flare and finesse. For exactly three minutes and twenty-six seconds. Then go back to the bowling pins. Like he didn’t just juggle FLAMING KNIVES.
Furthermore, Barton Hollow marks a turn on the album where everything gets a little darker. More minor key tunes, more melancholy. But it’s not necessarily a great transition. The songs lose some momentum, and things start sounding a lot more familiar. It’s never at any point bad, just blander than what we’ve been hearing up through Barton Hollow. The album’s lowest point comes with “Forget Me Not,” which is when our duo decides to pop themselves out of the minor-key binge to do a by-the-books country number. The song isn’t horrible. But it isn’t great. There’s just nothing special about it.
Nevertheless, Williams and White’s harmonies carry the album through and through. Through the strong strides and even the weaker strides, I never get tired of hearing these two sing.
Barton Hollow is a solid album that in some ways doesn’t do its authors justice, and in many ways does. However, it’s a freshman debut. Williams and White have only just begun exploring who the Civil Wars are. Let’s hope the journey continues for years to come.
(6) My Father’s Father
(7) Barton Hollow
(13) I Want You Back (Bonus)
Thanks for reading, folkers.