Call it life imitating art imitating two musicians with seriously out-of-whack relationship issues.
At first, Joy Williams and John Paul White — a.k.a. the Civil Wars — merely acted like a couple on the outs, a Southern Gothic folk-rock duo exploring the inner-workings of love gone kablooey. Married to others, Williams and White were solely workmates. And wow, did they work well, their intricate bittersweet harmonies sweet and sour, pushing and pulling.
But in the time between 2011's Grammy-winning debut Barton Hollow and their self-titled followup LP, released Tuesday, something went nasty. A tour was scrapped due to "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition." No one's saying what that means exactly, although the ominous plume of wildfire smoke on the cover of The Civil Wars probably isn't the best sign. And maybe there are more clues on the album itself, presumably finished before the split went down. But who can tell fact from fiction when the Nashvillians usually deal in devastation anyway?
Not to be crass — after all, no one with good taste in music wants the talented pair to part ways — but the ambiguous problems between Williams and White definitely put an intriguing, tabloid spin on The Civil Wars, which could very well be their last album together.
The 12-tracker opens with the slow-building misery of first single The One That Got Away; the dysfunction is hot 'n' heavy right out of the gate. "I never meant to get us in this deep / I never meant for this to mean a thing." Then as the dobro and electric guitars and ambient hum and Williams' crystalline howl get louder: "When I was staying just out of your reach / Begging for the slightest touch / Ooh, you couldn't get enough."
I'm not saying this is all autobiographical — as far as personal revelation, Kanye West they're not — but man, these two are mighty convincing as heartburned lovers. Produced by Charlie Peacock (with help from the ubiquitous Rick Rubin), The Civil Wars is sturdier, louder than Barton Hollow, but the themes of separation remain the same. I Had Me a Girl is a ferocious sinner's lament; unreliable protagonists enjoy their romantic inferno but burn down everything else in the process. Eavesdrop is lyrically prickly — "Oh don't say that it's over" — and yet the music, in the pesky form of mandolin and fiddle, offers upbeat (relatively) relief. The message: The good times were good. The bad times were worse. Let's say goodbye and move on.
Williams and White are adventurous musicians interested in more than just breakup tunes. A jaw-dropping live experience, the Civil Wars love their winky, deconstructed cover tunes. Search out wicked takes on Michael Jackson's Billie Jean and the Jackson 5's I Want You Back. Here, White takes the lead on a slow, unrecognizable version of the Smashing Pumpkin's Disarm. Williams puts a twisted honky-tonk spin on Etta James classic Tell Mama, then sings another cut totally in French.
The Civil Wars is a near-flawless record from a group incapable of false notes. The LP is captivating all the way to its final song, the unrequited love letter D'Arline, recorded, according to the liner notes, "at Joy's screened-in porch, live on an iPhone 4S." You can hear cawing crows on the track, and they get a puckish liner-note shout-out as well: "Edgar, Allan & Poe." Is that closing cut also a goodbye letter from the Civil Wars? Are solo albums on the horizon? Both the drama queen and music fan in me sure hopes not. At the very least, as a unit, Williams and White might have Grammy Awards in their future. And wouldn't that be an interesting onstage reunion?
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.