The Civil Wars' Self-Titled Album: What the Critics Are Saying

Civil Wars album cover square P

The folk duo releases a follow-up to their Grammy Award-winning debut amid reports of "intern discord."

The Civil Wars, the folk-rock duo comprised of Joy Williams and John Paul White, release their sophomore album Tuesday, Aug. 6. While their debut album, Barton Hollow, drew critical acclaim and earned the group two Grammy Awards, their self-titled effort, already being touted as their break-up album, could be their last.

After meeting at a songwriting convention in Nashville, Tenn., in 2008, California songwriter Williams and Alabama-born musician White first released a live album and a four-song EP before unveiling their full-length debut in 2011.

Barton Hollow garnered extremely positive reviews and appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Show With David Letterman followed, as well as an opening spot on Adele’s tour and a duet with pop-country superstar Taylor Swift on the Hunger Games soundtrack. 

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While recording their highly anticipated follow-up, the duo announced that they were splitting, citing "irreconcilable differences of ambition,” but committed to finishing the album. They brought in legendary rock producer Rick Rubin to lend a hand to Charlie Peacock, producer of Barton Hollow, and bring out the best of the album’s folk ballads and angsty blues jams, including a slow take on Etta James’ “Tell Mama.”

Now, two-and-a-half years and plenty of drama later, critics are feasting on the album’s rich vocal harmonies, as well as the juicy subplot of the twosome's tumultuous relationship.

Billboard’s Phil Gallo, who interviewed Williams for a track-by-track rundown of the album, describes how the band “brought in more instruments, added deeper textures, and upped the intensity of their songwriting.” Weighing in on how pregnancy changed her vocals, Williams said “there’s a different timbre to it now, and I love that I can hear the story of my son in my singing.”

Already declaring the release USA Today's “Album of the Week," Elysa Gardner says the duo's “vocal harmonies remain a hallmark” with “more subdued melodies.” On her way to rewarding the album 3.5 out of 4 stars, Gardner feels their “marriage of tempestuous and tasteful may have long-term potential after all.”

In a review for the Boston Globe, James Reed describes “a sense of weight and purpose that wasn’t apparent on Barton Hollow,” and “a compelling desperation about them.”

Like many other critics, The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis is quick to praise “the pair’s voices stretching vowels and bending notes in perfect unison.” Petridis goes on to claim, “these songs might catapult the album to multi-platinum success,” (commercially), but “their second album makes it clear they can also do something more substantial.”

In a separate review for The Guardian, Kitty Empire relates the band’s sound to “roots music on radio steroids.” She continues to say the lyrics, “these gritted, gnashing teeth are what makes Civil Wars songs compelling, even without the tremendous subplot in which Williams and White stop playing nice.”

Will Hermes of Rolling Stone writes that while “Barton Hollow was one of 2011’s biggest surprises, the [new] record could use more tracks where the instrumental drama matches the lush, scenery-eating vocals.” Hermes ends by describing “the gorgeous timbres and harmonies” as “never less than impressive.” And “as expressive as their individual voices are, the Civil Wars may well be greater than the sum of their warring parts.”

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