The Civil Wars - The Civil Wars as reviewed in Phantom Tollbooth

There is growth, truth in message, and thought-provoking story found in The Civil Wars.

Artist:            The Civil Wars
Label:            Sensibility Recordings/Columbia Records
Release Date: August 6, 2013
Duration:        12 tracks, 42:58

The Civil Wars is the sophomore release by the duo of John Paul White and Joy Williams. The self-titled album follows every possible success of their first release, Barton Hallow, including phenomenal record sales, worldwide tours, nationally televised appearances, various awards, and the recent renowned soundtrack, A Place At The Table, with T-Bone Burnett. The sophomore jinx of being able to follow this success looms.

At first listen the song collection seems dark, dark like the black and white album cover’s depiction of smoke and ruin. Dark like recent rumors of their relationship running afoul due to internal strive between the artists. But, wait for the second listen, the third, and so on. Artistically there is light and growth here, both in music and message, while maintaining the story line of relationship woes and folk genre blessings. Importantly, the musical chemistry between White and Williams remains strong. This is evident in their harmony, which continues to rise to new emotional heights.

Williams lilting, sorrowful voice begins the stories of relationship woes, hurt, and sorrow in “The One That Got Away”. The magic of the pair shows when the beat aggressively picks up and the duo joins in harmony. “I Had Me A Girl” begins with fuzzy electric guitar and a harder sound while White first then Williams following take the lead vocals in a bluesy song of remorse. Again, it is the duo’s harmony that brings the listener much closer to the song’s story.

A lighter sound begins “Some Old Same Old” storying the familiarity of tired but true relationships. Throughout the collection soft, emotional songs reign in “Dust To Dust”, “Eavesdrop” and “Disarm”. Emotion runs high in “Sacred Heart” sung in French telling of the waiting and wanting of love.

There are a number of tunes, including “From This Valley”, “Tell Mama”, and “Oh Henry” which are too country to be called folk and take away from the aura built on the Barton Hallow album. We also miss White’s vocal presence on these tunes.

“Devil’s Backbone” shines with the smoky story telling and harmony which White and Williams have become known for. Finally  “D’Arline” brings us back to what Barton Hallow promised in soulful folk with the brilliant collaboration of White and Williams.

There is something in the song collection that is earthy, grounded, and full of life’s truths. Dark, yes but that is part of their story. Folk, yes this is the best genre for this type of lyrical story since the blues came to the forefront of music some 100 plus years back.

It is understood that self-titled albums contain the standard, and occasionally the height of an artist’s output. Time will tell if this will hold true for The Civil Wars. Sophomore jinx no, not here. There is growth, truth in message, and thought-provoking story found in The Civil Wars.


Scott S Mertens



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