“D’Arline, what do I do now?
Can’t live with you or without, but oh
That’s how it goes”
“D’Arline,” The Civil Wars
Sophomore albums can often be an interesting, if not risky, aspect in a band’s career.
It’s sometimes said that a songwriter spends his formative years composing his first album, and when it comes to the follow-up, that same spark of creativity may not be there.
And yet, there are plenty who rise above the fabled challenge of the “sophomore slump.” Some musicians will build upon the style formed in their first album, refining it into something even more complex and accessible (consider bands like The Smiths and Nirvana) while some others will use their debut efforts only to subvert them and defy expectations (Weezer’s Pinkerton).
When it comes to The Civil Wars’ self-titled second album, a case can be made for either of these scenarios as the music evolves from the same format as Barton Hollow while also being a tonal 180 from the direction of their initial record.
The biggest shift in the musical partnership of Joy Williams and John Paul White is just as simply said as it is complicated to digest: The band, as a collective unit, has ceased to exist.
But is this essential information for the record at hand? Well, yes and no.
Surely The Civil Wars is an easily masterful and accessible work for those in or out of the loop, but one may argue that the songs on this album inherently possess an added dimension for those familiar with the recently fractured history of the band.
Williams has said previously in anticipatory interviews for the release that those who want to know what happened to the band should listen to the songs on this record. This isn’t to say that the lyrics serve as a chronicle of the two’s falling out. After all, who would want it to be? Instead, it’s the delivery and the ambience conveyed through every song that may give us some clue as to the band’s mindset at the period of their dissolution.
Which, lending to its infinitely relatable qualities, does not mean that every song on The Civil Wars emanates with contempt. There are certainly biting passages where we get a hint of the more fierce emotions behind the work, most notably in the opening number, and quite a strong one in fact, “The One That Got Away,” but along with the aggressive pieces, there are also motifs of haunted sorrow (“Same Old, Same Old,” “Devil’s Backbone”), hurtful longing (“Dust to Dust,” “Eavesdrop”), genuine tenderness (“D’Arline,” the cover of “Tell Mama”) and the uplifting safe-haven of spiritualism (“From This Valley”). In this we get a much more real and vivid portrait, not one that is steadfastly clouded with anger, but one that is immensely conflicted in a clash of opposing emotions.
Of course, The Civil Wars heralds a songwriting evolution in more obvious ways as well. Sonically, the folksy sound of the band has certainly expanded with the incorporation of a full band on select tracks complete with heavy-hitting drums and distorted electric guitars, a fantastically refreshing change from the first album that perfectly suits the new material, adding just the right tone for pieces like “Oh Henry” and “I Had Me a Girl” and providing the menacing accents needed in sections such as the climatic buildup during “The One that Got Away.”
The band also returns to some familiar turf with select lyrics from the new album as well. “Devil’s Backbone,” for instance, feels much like a spiritual sequel to the first album’s title track “Barton Hollow,” and in passages of songs like “Dust to Dust” and “Eavesdrop,” one may be transported back to the group’s early masterworks of “Poison and Wine.” But there is a difference in here as well, perhaps a more intangible factor. There is something of a strengthened sense of confidence and prowess with the songwriting. A sense of risk is also evidenced in the album too when considering “Sacred Heart,” an artfully melodic piece sung entirely in French, and most notably, “From This Valley,” standing as a particularly inspired gospel-esque song.
The Civil Wars is a deceptively deep and complex album that, in one stroke, expands the groundwork set within the band’s debut effort while also veering into a somewhat unexpected direction. With its bigger sound, varied emotional landscape, and heightened skills in terms of song structure and production, it is every bit a better album than its predecessor (which was already a damn good album in itself).
Ultimately, many fans are left to speculate on the future for The Civil Wars.
What went wrong? Is there any hope of reconciliation or of hearing a third album?
The answers, if there are any, are unreachable as of yet, doubtful at worst.
Then perhaps it’s best that we were left with such a magnificent, intricate puzzle with which to occupy our minds in the meantime.
Rating: 5 out of 5
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