The Civil Wars (Album Review) – The Civil Wars

The Civil WarsIt’s a civil war on the new self-titled The Civil Wars album. If only all civil wars were similar.

The folk duo, which announced they were going on hiatus for “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition” back in October, barely managed to finish their sophomore album which might be their last. This album was brewed in the midst of their turmoil. Can such tension translate into excellent music, the likes of which is present in their first album Barton Hollow, in a band that relies heavily on harmonies to stand out?

The truth is that The Civil Wars is even better than Barton Hollow.

From the cover of billowing smoke to Joy Williams spewing “I wish I’d never ever seen your face” on the album’s opening song “The One That Got Away,” a song that departs from their relatively acoustic style, you know you’re in for one musical ride. On Same Old Same Old, the duo examines a struggling relationship whose components don’t want to let go. “Do I love you? I still do. And I’m going to till I’m gone. But if you think that I can stay in this same old same old, well, I don’t,” they sing together on one of the album’s highlight songs.

My favorite song on the album, Dust to Dust, about the loneliness that we all experience doesn’t have the dramatic music you’d expect such a topic to require. It is subdued, relying more on what these two vocalists can do together to convey the story they want to tell. The harmonies the duo create on this track may sound secondary but it’s beyond essential for the mood it creates for the song.  “It’s not your eyes, it’s not what you say. It’s not your laughter that gave you away. You’re just lonely, you’ve been lonely too long. All your acting, your thin disguise, all your perfectly delivered lines. They don’t fool me, you’ve been lonely too long. Let me in the walls you’ve built around. We can light a match and burn them down. Let me hold your hands and dance round and round the flames in front of us, dust to dust.”

Eavesdrop, the album’s possibly most commercial song, is about dealing with pain, even if through a simple hug. “I can’t pull you closer than this. It’s just you and the moon on my skin. Don’t say that it’s over… let’s let the stars watch, let them stare. Let the winds eavesdrop, I don’t care. For all that we’ve got, don’t let go. Just hold me.”

The album has two covers. One of Etta James’ Tell Mama and the other of Smashing Pumpkins’ Disarm. The Civil Wars completely unravels both songs and create their own version out of them. They make the lyrics and the story more prominent in both by toning down the music and making the vocals stand out more. D’Arline is a song that sounds gritty simply because it was recorded on an iPhone and included on the album as is. You can hear the background noise of a suburb on it as The Civil Wars flawlessly deliver the song.

Sacred Heart, a French song they wrote in Paris, is as surprising as it is interesting. With near-impeccable enunciation, the duo tell the story of a lover waiting for her significant other who may not show up while she remembers all the promises in the name of love on her way to the Sacred Heart. “Tu prends peut-être du retard. Tu as peut-être raté ton train. Tu ne peux peut-être pas me pardonner. Les ombres grandissent et les foules s’effacent. Je vais t’attendre là, viendras-tu pour moi? Je vais t’attendre là, seulement toi.”

The Civil Wars is intense. It’s also beautiful. This might be the band’s last album, a tragedy if it turns out to be true because this piece of music proves exactly how brilliantly this duo can do music. The band won’t even be performing these songs live. If you’ve ever seen their live performances, you’d know they are even better than they are recorded. Such an album creates a multitude of “if only” scenarios. With it heading to #1 status in the United States in a few days, the duo would have reached higher levels of success and fame with this work if only had they stayed on speaking terms. Add this album to your list of must-have music for 2013. It doesn’t matter if you like folk or alternative-tinged music, there’s something here which will bring forth the civil war in you.

Grade: A

Must download: The One That Got Away, Same Old Same Old, Dust to Dust. 

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