Still Getting Over Civil Wars Shell-Shock, Joy Williams Lays Bare at the El Rey: Concert Review

Chris Willman
Joy Williams
And now for her third act: solo star.

And now for her third act: solo star.

There are plenty of second acts in American pop lives. Getting a third life, however, is a tougher proposition. Yet Joy Williams is among that rare breed of performer who’s getting to experience not just a bifurcated but trifurcated career. After starting out as Christian pop singer, she traded in heaven for the holler by becoming half of the all-acoustic Civil Wars, about as serious a left turn as could have been imagined. In the wake of that surprisingly popular duo’s surprisingly contentious split, Williams is indulging in reinvention yet again with Venus, a solo re-debut that’s due out in late June. Maybe the literary reference here shouldn’t be to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but C.S. Lewis, because Surprised by Joy just about nails it.

At Los Angeles' El Rey Theatre Tuesday night (May 19), Williams’ break from her recent past loomed large even before she sang a note, thanks to a sophisticated production design that had her four-piece band cloaked behind a succession of translucent screens in order to set off her newly embraced sense of theatricality amid some large-scale, cosmos-evoking projections.

By the second song, Williams’ upper body was a study in perpetual dancerly motion, even as she stood completely anchored at center stage. Only once did we spy anyone behind the curtain pick up a guitar, in the service of new music that is almost completely electronic. Even when she revived a couple of Civil Wars songs, “The One That Got Away” and “Dust to Dust,” they were reinterpreted in her new Sarah McLachlan-meets-EDM style. It was easy to imagine her estranged ex-musical partner, the austerity-favoring John Paul White, catching a YouTube glimpse of Williams doing a dubstep-flavored “One That Got Away” and slowly banging his head against a wall.

White was there, in spirit, as the ghost who haunts some of the new Venus songs. This is her “divorce album,” and thankfully, Williams didn’t actually have to split from her manager-husband to write it, since the Civil Wars’ split apparently provided material enough. She’s said in past interviews that White has never deigned to speak with her since the night they suddenly broke up mid-tour, and that sense of shock carries over into at least a couple of the freshly introduced tunes. She opened with one of them, “What a Good Woman Does,” which pretty much answers the musical question: Why did the act break up? The lyrical reply is a telling non-answer: “I could tell the truth about you leaving, but that’s not what a good woman does.” Played with not much more than a hidden piano for accompaniment, “What a Good Woman” is a confessional song about how she’s not going to get that confessional, which would be kind of brilliant even if the tune didn’t go on to impress with its own stirring, stark beauty.

Later on, the presumed subject of that split arose again, with “One Day I Will,” which looks forward with the faintest sense of hope to a time when “I won’t feel torn each time I hear your name.” Although Williams didn’t make any allusions to what situation that song was about, its placement in the set immediately following the Civil Wars’ greatest hit seemed designed to say it all.

That’s not to suggest that the forthcoming album is solely obsessed with that intriguing professional disaster. “Some shit has happened,” Williams explained to the audience before her final number, elaborating that she was referring “not just to the end of the duo” but to other life changes in the last two years, including her marriage “needing to get reprocessed and reprogrammed,” her father’s cancer diagnosis and death, and the birth of her first child. After all that “I feel more in my skin than I ever have,” she said, launching into her current single, “Woman (Oh Mama),” a number that adds a Graceland-ian rhythm to the mix. Its theme: Girls run the world. Also: Girls rue the world. Beyonce got it half-right, anyway.

To the extent that Williams spends a lot of Venus writing about emerging from shell-shock, her one outside song choice was particularly well chosen — the gorgeous “Ordinary World,” arguably the one time Duran Duran ever sounded truly haunted and haunting, and an anthem for anyone leaving behind rose-colored glasses to embrace a harsh new reality. Her own “Until the Levee” struck that same chord, and benefited from a slightly bigger beat than some of the other ballads, as did “Sweet Love of Mine,” the one true love song amid all this bittersweet rediscovery.

Some Civil Wars fans may find Williams’ switch from an all-acoustic to a virtually no-acoustic sound some kind of betrayal. But the electronics never try to compete with the wonder that is that voice — if anything, they could stand to try to push up against it a little more, since she’s unlikely to be dominated even by a more aggressive instrumentation. During the second of two Civil Wars songs, “Dust to Dust,” the screens were filled with images of roses, some of which would occasionally turn on the beat, like levers in some sort of floral machine. That image was an apt metaphor for the combination of technology and vulnerability Williams is presently going for. And if you might like her to hear her eventually try a musical approach that’s somewhere in-between the folkiness of her previous life and the electronica of her current one? Well, don’t be surprised if a singer this talented is good for a fourth act, too.

Set List:

What a Good Woman Does
The Dying Kind
Before I Sleep
Sweet Love of Mine
Not Good Enough
The One That Got Away (Civil Wars song)
One Day I Will
Until the Levee
Ordinary World (Duran Duran cover)
Dust to Dust (Civil Wars song)
Woman (Oh Mama)