It’s really a shame that the Civil Wars are unlikely to tour off of their second, self-titled album, because the duo spends at least half of the 12-track set right in the pocket. Blistering vocal moments outweigh any whimpering; Joy Williams and John Paul White relish in “The Civil Wars’” emotional heights, making it all the more enthralling and heartbreaking for the listener who mourns the Grammy Award winners' grave status as a band.
Thematically, the songs on “The Civil Wars” are about being unable to have the thing you want -- or to have what it is that you want ever again. On opener “The One That Got Away,” they sing in singular longing “I miss the way you wanted me / when I was stayin’ just out of your reach” over its ominous melody like a backcountry version of Metallica’s “Unforgiven.” "I’ve fallen in love with a man on the run” is the plot of “Devil’s backbone.” “Oh the grass is green / everywhere but under me” Williams laments on acoustic-led folk stomper “Oh Henry.” The slow-motion-end-credits doom of “Dust to Dust” threatens to “burn the whole thing down” in the very softest of rock, implying that that match ain’t ever gonna get lit.
It’s a simple pile-on of axioms about dissatisfaction, which could be interpreted as a larger metaphor for why the singer-songwriters have gone on hiatus and are even no longer on speaking terms. Regardless of their professional and personal reasons for the semi-permanent disbandment, these songs are sung with a sober intensity that makes it all the more believable that there’s a serious fire burning to produce all the smoke that occupies the album's front cover.
Whether in the sad, succulent cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” or the broad thudding of rock track “Eavesdrop,” Williams’ breathy dipthongs and teeth rattling ranges are further amplified by White’s more nuanced harmonies, song-for-song. (Though he takes the cake on “I Had Me a Girl,” in voice and electric guitar.)
Closer “D’Arline” was recorded outdoors on an iPhone, and for all its flaws and treacly love-stuffs, it’s exemplary in showcasing the Civil Wars’ chemistry as a entity. It makes it hard to imagine these two apart, but equally easy to see why -- after an angsty effort like this -- they could be permanently disabled.