Break-ups are hard. Emotions are raw. Sometimes it takes a little while for the smoke to clear enough to see what, if anything, is still left standing. And The Civil Wars, in case you didn’t already know, is very much a break-up album. Not in the usual sense, because this isn’t a one-sided account of a relationship gone bad. This is the documentation, told from the inside, of a band falling a part, a songwriting duo who once had so much onstage chemistry they spent most of their time denying they were a couple now so far apart they are not even on speaking terms.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what stage of the process this album documents. Joy Williams says if you want to know what happened to the band, listen to the album – it’s all on here, she says. Other accounts suggest this only catches the beginning, that it only exists because most of it was recorded before such time as their relationship deteriorated to the point they can no longer stand the sight of each other.
Whatever the truth, this is an album with an unavoidable backstory, impossible to listen to without imagining what is going on in the room as it is being written, rehearsed and recorded. The anger pours out through songs with a vastly different tone from their breakthrough debut. John Paul White, so far silent as far as interviews go, has spoken through an electric guitar, his frustrations poured out in explosions of distortion as he discards the oft-playful acoustic sound of Barton Hollow in favour of something louder and more aggressive. Topics of love lost and cheating hearts may be standard country fare, but when they yell “Oh I wish I’d never ever seen your face” in perfect harmony on opener ‘The One That Got Away’ the context once again overrides the reaction it creates.
The listener shares in the sense of loss. The Civil Wars charmed the world when they first appeared – a pair accidentally thrown together in Nashville with such chemistry it seemed they could finish each other’s sentences. But in many ways that only added to their internal tension – two artists married to other people who put on a show every night until it all began to overwhelm them. Listening to this record now, still littered with beautiful harmonies and blessed by whatever magic is awakened when these individuals combine, you can only mourn the fact it will almost certainly be their last.