This Week in Music, August 6, 2013: The last days of the Civil Wars

The Civil Wars: The Civil Wars

New release (Sensibility/Columbia)
Photo by Allister Ann

From great suffering comes great art. So they say.

Need more proof? Just spin the self-titled set from the Civil Wars. It’s the follow-up to their acclaimed 2011 debut, Barton Hollow. There will be no follow-up to this album, however. As The New York Times has reported, Joy Williams and John Paul White aren’t talking to each other.

The duo broke up in November 2012, only two months after they started recording The Civil Wars. From that point, Williams and White visited the studio separately to finish their parts, and producer Charlie Peacock handled the overdubbing of outside instrumentation until the album was completed in late January.

Just what exactly was the war that divided this civil-cum-magical union? White won’t comment. Williams told the Times that, in the newspaper’s paraphrase, “creative disagreements had been building for several months.” Ultimately, according to an earlier statement on behalf of the duo, they fell apart because of “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.”

Williams is married and the mother of a son. White is married and the father of three sons and a daughter. Despite those facts, the duo’s fans couldn’t help but wonder whether the chemistry between them was ever something more than musical. In this album’s liner-note “thanks,” White says: “This is for the only thing that has ever really mattered, although I sometimes lost sight of it (figuratively and literally) — my family.” Meanwhile, the Times, for the record, felt compelled to ask Williams to settle “rumors that she had romantic feelings for Mr. White.” Her reply: “I was not in love with John Paul. But I was, and am, in love with the band.”

Ah, rumors — or Rumours, of the Fleetwood Mac soap-opera variety. Speculate all you want, but does the art of The Civil Wars transcend the suffering?

It does. First, let’s give Peacock his due for the production (and the credited arrangements). He also produced the simple folk of Barton Hollow, but here he expands the recordings in all kinds of acoustic and electric ways. The result is often spellbinding, as heard right from the album’s start on “The One That Got Away” — which enhances the duo’s vocals and White’s guitars with a host of sonics, including Andy Leftwich’s mandolin, Jerry Douglas’s Dobro, Dan Dugmore’s pedal-steel effects, and Peacock’s “ambient treatment.” Such nebulous but still discernible ambience recurs here and there and helps give the album its beyond-folk richness.

Yes, but the duo’s songwriting? Their performances? “I Had Me a Girl” (co-produced by Rick Rubin) and “Oh Henry” are folk-blues hollers that nearly outstrip the White Stripes. “Eavesdrop” takes the rock that was teased in “The One That Got Away” and gives it ample room to stretch. And despite the tension in the studio before November (and the physical separation of the harmonizing pair after then), the vocals remain assured, with the trading of verses striking the most poignant chords. True, Williams may seem a bit breathy on “Dust to Dust,” but then there’s the aching plea that she creates with White at the end of “Eavesdrop” — a plea of “just hold me” that may be the most heartbreaking sound I’ve heard all year.

It’s the kind of sound that can stoke rumors of love and war.

Sure, there are other peoples’ songs here (Billy Corgan’s “Disarm,” the Etta James single “Tell Mama”). But most of the 10 originals reveal a personal hurt that can’t be ignored. The message of “Same Old Same Old”: Breaking up is very hard to do. The pivotal lines of “Eavesdrop”: “Oh, don’t say that it’s over . . . / Oh, who says it ever has to end.”

Sure, one could argue that those two songs and three other originals have a before-the-breakup 2011 copyright. (And it’s telling that the most upbeat track here, the near-spiritual of “From This Valley,” dates all the way back to 2010.) But hear this from 2012’s “The One That Got Away,” with Williams dominating the vocals: “I never meant to get us in this deep / I never meant for this to mean a thing / I wish you were the one / Wish you were the one that got away.” And this: “Oh, I wish I’d never ever seen your face.”

Fans wishing to find a glimmer of closure can go out with the album’s final track, 2012’s “D’Arline.” Coming after Peacock’s artful delivery of the preceding 11 tracks, it’s a decided curveball: a live recording via iPhone on Williams’s screened-in porch. Ostensibly, the song is a letter to the whereabouts-unknown D’Arline. But considering that, as Williams told the Times, the duo’s disagreements “came to a head” during the 2012 porch songwriting sessions, these lyrics have particular resonance: “You’ll always be the only one / Even when you’re not / You’ll always be the only one/ Even when you’re gone.”

And then, just like a cellphone call or a text message or a Facebook post — or a folk duo — it’s over.