After the Civil Wars broke out with their 2011 debut, Joy Williams and John Paul White repeatedly insisted that the lovelorn lyrics on "Barton Hollow" weren't about them. Each was happily married to another person, they said; the intense romantic bond they conjured onstage was strictly an artistic creation, one that led to more than a half-million album sales, two Grammy Awards and superstar fans such as Adele and Taylor Swift, who recruited the folk-rock duo for a hit collaboration on the "Hunger Games" soundtrack.
Despite (or because of) all that success, the Civil Wars began to unravel. Last November, Williams and White abruptly called off a European tour, citing "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition." Now Williams says the two singers, who met while trying to write songs for the Nashville star machine, aren't even speaking to each other — which makes it hard not to hear the recriminations on the duo's new disc as pertaining once again to the real-life relationship at its core.
"Oh, I wish I'd never, ever seen your face," they sing in the album's first track, "I wish you were the one that got away."
Produced amid the turmoil that appears to have broken up the band (at least for now), "The Civil Wars" is darker and more expansive than the group's sometimes-snoozy debut, with more varied tempos and instrumental contributions by Nashville pros including Alison Krauss' dobro player, Jerry Douglas. "I Had Me a Girl" and "Oh Henry" bristle with fuzzy electric guitar; "Devil's Backbone" has the Celtic-accented drone of what sounds like an accordion.
Yet the album is hardly the big-tent blowout the Civil Wars might've delivered in the wake of the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons, who have remade roots music as a kind of artisanal arena rock since "Barton Hollow."
Most of the duo's new songs still seem constructed around Williams' and White's tightly braided vocals, as in "Dust to Dust," which recalls the almost uncomfortable intimacy of the Swell Season, and "From This Valley," in which White's fevered barn-dance strumming suddenly gives way to a gorgeous stretch of unaccompanied singing. "D'Arline," with the sound of birds in the background, feels like a demo, which it may in fact be: "Recorded at Joy's Screened-In Porch, Live on an iPhone 4S," the liner notes read.
The hushed vibe turns dreary in covers of Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm" and Etta James' "Tell Mama," the latter of which demonstrates that, although there's plenty of passion in Williams' singing, her voice contains no sex at all — an aftereffect, perhaps, of the years she put in before the Civil Wars doing Christian pop.
Then again, maybe desire simply wasn't on her mind in the studio with White. You definitely believe her when she bitterly rhymes "your thin disguise" with "your perfectly delivered lines."
The Civil Wars
"The Civil Wars"
Three stars (out of four)