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The Civil Wars write songs about love, but they do not write love songs. They write songs about unrequited love, they write ‘will they won’t they’, they write falling together, or falling apart, no longer in love or never in love. They tend to leave the happy in-between alone. They do this very, very well.

The band, consisting of Joy Williams and John Paul White, released one other album, in 2011, called Barton Hollow. The album was one hell of a success, appearing on dozens of ‘album of the year lists’.  This release is their second, and possibly last album – the pair, no longer on speaking terms, can hardly bear to stay in the same room.

Yet, the songs are still sung, for the most part, as if one lover to the other. The chemistry is still powerful, still present. In Dust to Dust, it’s still beautifully, longingly tender. In others, it’s there, strong, but… harsher. Save the duo’s almost signature ‘southern gothic’ lyric (The title track in Barton Hollow and Devil’s Backbone here), the songs are the already mentioned ‘not really’ love songs – always made more powerful, more real, because of the pair’s chemistry.

Musically, the album starts out strong, and remains there, with a very few weaker tracks, until the end of the album. On the whole, however, the first half is stronger than the second – despite a cover of The Smashing Pumpkin’s Disarm  the duo have made completely their own, and the brave inclusion of the entirely French, but still clearly evocative Sacred Heart.

Eavesdrop is one of the album’s stand-out tracks – a lover pleading “don’t say that it’s over”. The lyrics, the delivery, imply it isn’t. The discordant guitar toward the end tell the real story. One of the many stop and shiver moments that make The Civil Wars so exciting, so interesting a band.

The Civil Wars promo pic

A SOURED FRIENDSHIP: The Civil Wars’ Joy Williams and John Paul White in happier times.

The Civil Wars is more darkly melancholic than the duo’s first release, and in a way this suits the pair’s sound. Williams’ breathy hush carries the sad weight of the sound effortlessly and beautifully.
Despite this, the stand-out track is Dust to Dust, which seems to deal in the same ‘why aren’t they together?’ vein as the first album.

A strong second album, but, sadly, not a patch on the third. Save a few stand out tracks, the majority is slightly reminiscent of filler – and now matter how strong a filler track might be, it can never quite live up to the potential of an artist at their best. Suffered, possibly, from the couple’s falling apart – maybe a few more weeks of united effort could have lifted this above the average.

3 stars ★

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