Music, in all its intricacies and beauty, is one of the most precious tools of language to express the mundane, the complex, and the difficult. The Civil Wars, an indie folk duo, revolutionized the way words can haunt us, leave us with a hunger for something more than mediocrity, and push us to hunt for something that goes beyond ourselves.
They released their first album, Barton Hollow, in 2011, and their second album, The Civil Wars, in 2013. Unfortunately, these star-crossed musicians had a falling out, and officially broke up in 2014. Though they weren’t with us for long, they made music the way it was meant to be heard – raw, rich, and simple. With their guitar, piano, and vocals, John Paul White and Joy Williams nurtured the musical history from which they came and gave us a new vocabulary for feeling. Here are seven songs by The Civil Wars to renew your love for music, and revive your hope in the power of words.
- “Falling” (from Barton Hollow, 2011)
Relationships are dynamic, powerful sites of expression. But, as months turn into years, we become more susceptible to routine, a slippery slope into monotony. In this first song ever written by the duo, Williams and White perfectly capture that fear of drifting in spite of being grounded, the fear of falling away as time fades on. With this song, it is absolutely necessary to listen to the live or LP version – Williams’s voice redefines what it means to be haunted.
- “Kingdom Come” (from The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond, 2012)
It seems that our only options in a time of danger are fight or flight. And though two very distinct binaries, they both have their benefits and drawbacks. But whether we face the demon, or flee to safety, we are each simply searching for the sanctuary of that safe ending. Written for The Hunger Games (2012) soundtrack, The Civil Wars wrote this song about the search for safety in an ever-fleeting distant future. They remind us to keep moving forward- “it’ll all be over soon.”
- “If I Didn’t Know Better” (from The Civil Wars: Live at Eddie’s Attic, 2009)
We know what we should and shouldn’t do. We know that salvation is preferred to damnation, but we still choose the latter. Sometimes, the temptation to do what we know we should is like voluntarily stepping into a void, a darkness without return. But sometimes, we reject the sweet enticement that wraps us up, and we turn away. Performed at Eddie’s Attic in 2009, this song is unique in its dance of voice and overcoming the temptation that is dangerously close.
- “Billie Jean” (from The Civil Wars: VH1 Unplugged, 2013)
In this slow, acoustic cover of the classic Michael Jackson hit, The Civil Wars bring a new life to an old favourite. Inspired by his negative experience with the copious and obsessive fans of The Jackson 5, “Billie Jean” is about cause and effect, passion and price. With long strokes of the guitar and powerful harmonies, the duo adds a layer of sensitivity to the sensuality of the song, while bringing forward new tones of fear and passion. Performed at VH1 Unplugged in 2013, “Billie Jean” became a staple cover in the duo’s career.
- “Eavesdrop” (from The Civil Wars, 2013)
Endings are never easy. Often, time feels slowed down, a shower of disbelief and dissatisfaction the only reminder that we are alive. Even in the midst of what feels like torturous trauma, we are never alone: the world does not abandon, and the world does not fail. Written for The Civil Wars (2013), this heartbreaking melody embodies desperation and sadness. Though moments cannot stay paused, the stars will remain our guardians of comfort.
- “From This Valley” (from The Civil Wars, 2013)
We know that we are strong, and we know that we are capable of handling what life throws at us. But, some valleys are dark, synonymous with isolation and desperation. When we struggle, we become pilots in the search for meaning. I’ve often found that this search goes beyond ourselves, pushing us to pursue something greater. When in valleys, we dream of mountains. The journey is long, but not lonely. On the road to the great, there is companionship, should we choose to accept it. Written for their self-titled album, The Civil Wars (2013), this song won the duo’s fourth Grammy award for Best Country Duo/Group Performance in 2013.
- “You Are My Sunshine” (single, 2014)
Sometimes, the most powerful songs are the nostalgic ones. They are preserved memories trapped into three minutes of history. When I was little, this song would make me smile- it was sunshine itself. But, The Civil Wars changed that for me. Following a joint statement informing us of their musical breakup, they released this final song for free for their fans. A haunting version of a normally upbeat song epitomizes the bittersweet beauty of a necessary ending. In their final duet, may we remember our fan/artist relationship with them. In this sacred space of song, we have become family, united in feeling and art.
We can’t always say what we feel. But this is why we have poets, writers, musicians, and artists – to express the inexpressible, to give colour to the monotony of life. The Civil Wars lived up to their name, bringing fight and passion into song. Though all good things must come to an end, their legacy of language and melody will remain through peace and chaos. Check out more by The Civil Wars here.
Featured image via The Civil Wars