The Civil Wars’ newest (and possibly last) album is like an ode to every dysfunctional relationship that ever has been, or ever will be. The album is poignant and breathtaking in its sincerity, rendering the listener a silent witness to a couple’s journey through temptation, crushing desperation, cruelty, and, ultimately, towards defeat. Perhaps the most striking touch is that the order of these emotions is scrambled, skillfully mimicking an ambivalence many will find familiar.
Musically, the eponymous album is every bit as strong as their previous releases. The Civil Wars continues to display the duo’s exceptional skill at layering instruments, lyrics, and vocals in a way which very nearly transforms their music into a living, breathing thing. But beyond matching the expected level of excellence (which was quite difficult, given how acclaimed their previous music has been), The Civil Wars should be applauded for finding ways to introduce new elements on this album. For example, songs like “I Had Me a Girl” and “Dust to Dust” feature percussive elements previously only heard on certain soundtrack projects. Likewise, many of the tracks utilize electric guitar and distortion, giving the overall album a somewhat wider range of sound and emotion than their previous acoustically-styled releases offered. This edgier sound is well-utilized on tracks like “The One That Got Away” and “Devil’s Backbone”.
In the end, both new and returning fans of The Civil Wars will find plenty to love on this album. In addition to the newer sounds, there is “Same Old, Same Old”, which seems to continue the dysfunctional conversation begun in “Poison and Wine”, and “Devil’s Backbone” has a sort of roguish country sound reminiscent of “Barton Hollow”. Even those who have hoped for more of the pair’s imaginative covers will be satisfied by the brilliant re-imaginations of both Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” and Etta James’ “Tell Mama”. Ultimately, few—if any—albums this year will match the level of The Civil Wars.