I had a conversation today about the fact that some of my favorite albums grew from turmoil within the bands that created them.
The most obvious example, of course, is Rumours, in which the members of Fleetwood Mac aired dirty laundry about each other to some of their most indelible grooves. One of my favorites is Keane’s Under the Iron Sea, which is basically a suite of angry letters from pianist Tim Rice-Oxley to singer Tom Chaplin, which Chaplin then had to sing.
And of course, there is the 2013 self-titled record from the Civil Wars. The duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White announced their breakup almost simultaneously with the release of this album, and people pored over it for clues to their abrupt separation. People wondered if the two of them, both married to other people, were secretly a couple, and whether the darker emotions on their breakup record were drawn from real life. It was like the indie-folk equivalent of reality TV.
Usually I don’t care about this sort of thing, and even in this case, I don’t care very much. But it is tempting to consider Williams and White in parallel, and question whether the songs on their new solo albums, released within weeks of each other, touch on the feelings that led to the end of the Civil Wars. This honestly is not particularly fruitful – it’s speculating about people’s lives, and about stories we may never know, nor have any right to know. But some lingering questions are unavoidable.
But I also think this does both of them a disservice. White and Williams were both accomplished songwriters before they formed a band, and they’re still working that trade now. Both of their new albums are lovely things that clearly were labored over, and should be considered on their own merits. It’s an easy thing to talk about them together, and to wonder if, for example, White’s “Yesterday’s Love” is about Williams, but let’s not do that. Let’s take them one at a time, as the singer-songwriter efforts they are, because they are both very much worth hearing.
White’s album is called The Hurting Kind, and its vintage-looking cover perfectly sets expectations for the music within. This is like a Roy Orbison record, with some classic country balladry enhanced by rich strings. White’s music has always been influenced by this old-timey material, but this is the first time he’s taken the full plunge. “Heart Like a Kite” could easily be a Hank Williams ballad, as could the aforementioned “Yesterday’s Love.” There’s a healthy helping of pedal steel and those twangy electric guitars over loping strums, and White’s clear, strong voice.
I’d put “I Wish I Could Write You a Song” up against the best of his work. This one is full Roy Orbison, and I could honestly hear Roy singing this piece. The chorus soars: “A melody with harmony, soft and sweet, that sounds like what it feels like when you dance with me…” This one will stick with you. On the other end of the spectrum, though just as terrific, is “The Long Way Home,” a dark and strummy rocker that could find a home on country radio.
I don’t know if that’s his aim, though. The Hurting Kind eschews pop country for traditional sounds, as on the sad and pretty “This Isn’t Gonna End Well,” which features a dynamite vocal from Lee Ann Womack. (Speaking of someone immersed in traditional country.) The 6/8 shuffle of “You Lost Me” is pure George Jones. Closer “My Dreams Have All Come True” is in the same time signature, but is totally Roy, with its floating, gorgeous falsetto. This isn’t an album that panders in any way to modern audiences. It’s a celebration of White’s ability to write new songs that sound timeless.
People certainly accused Williams of pandering last time out. 2015’s Venus was a striking piece of work, incorporating electronic elements to bolster her folksy tunes. And there were some corkers on there, particularly “Woman (Oh Mama),” an invigorating feminist anthem. Her new one, Front Porch, is in many ways the musical opposite of Venus – it’s a quiet country-folk record that feels organic from first note to last, and emphasizes her glorious voice. If you like Sara Watkins’ softer material, you will like this.
The subject matter here doesn’t need a lot of speculation: Williams recently split with her husband of 15 years, and many songs on Front Porch directly reference this. “When Does a Heart Move On” is a lament for a broken relationship, and for the strength to move forward. “All I Need” is about finding solace in being alone: “I may not have everything I want, but I’ve got all I need.” “The Trouble With Wanting” is about being drawn to someone even though it’s clearly not going to work. That song has some absolutely breathtaking harmonies from Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids.
This whole album is beautiful, and I hope it catches the ears of people who like, for example, Sarah Jarosz. The instrumentation is sparse – the sweet “No Place Like You” is just Williams and an acoustic guitar – which shines a spotlight on the songwriting, and Williams has stepped up with some stunners. I’m a big fan of “When Creation Was Young,” a new twist on the old “I’ve been loving you forever” trope, and “Preacher’s Daughter” is a pretty tribute to Williams’ father.
And I love that she chose to end this heartache of a record with something sweet and optimistic. The brief “Look How Far We’ve Come” is a ray of sunshine right at the end, a song that sounds a hundred years old but is born from a contemporary belief that things will get better. It leaves me with a smile, and even through all the pain on this record that smile is what has lingered the longest. Front Porch is a superb little record, and it deserves to catapult Joy Williams into the next level of her solo career.
Hell, both of these records are swell, and proof that the Civil Wars may be over, but Williams and White haven’t stopped making tremendous music that deserves our attention. I have no idea whether any lingering feelings about their collaboration made their way into the corners of these tunes, and honestly, it doesn’t matter. Both White and Williams are strong songwriters who deserve success on their own terms, and their names should be as well-known as that of their former band.
Next week I will be in Montreal for the 2019 Marillion Weekend. I plan to keep a diary of each night’s show and bore you to tears with it next Tuesday. After that it’s back to your regularly scheduled review column with the National, the Head and the Heart, Eperanza Spalding and Lizzo, to name a few. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook atwww.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.