SoTW 298: The Civil Wars, ‘Billie Jean’

The Civil Wars, ‘Billie Jean’

The Civil Wars was an Americana duo with a brief but brilliant career singing Acoustic Porn.

Four Grammies and a Gold Album, opening for Adele, recording with Taylor Swift. In 2011, Time called them “One of the 10 Best of Everything.”

John Paul White and Joy Williams toured together for 3 years, both ostensibly “happily married to other people.” JP’s wife and 4 kids were back home in Muscle Shoals. Joy’s husband was their manager, watching from the wings. Know what he saw?

John Paul and Joy singing, tight, lovelorn Southern Gothic harmonies with the intimacy and urgency of coitus. Aural sex.

Until their sudden breakup one night mid-tour. After which Joy and John Paul never spoke to each other. Musical coitus interruptus.

Here’s ‘Falling, The Civil Wars’ first song.

Sound familiar? Remember the movie we all fell in love with, “Once”? The film’s “Falling Slowly” won the 2007 Academy Award for best original song; a Broadway musical adaptation later won eight Tony Awards, including best musical, in 2012.

Same three chords, same truth: an awful lot of repressed, pent up desire. Glen had played with Marketa for years before they made that movie, but the 19-year age difference made a relationship ‘inappropriate.’ Then the movie was a smash, they were a smash, they went on tour, and the age differential somehow got uninappropriated. They say The Road does that. Today they’re ‘just good friends’.

Glen and Marketa were heartwarming, and we were plotzing for them to get together. But to be honest, musically it’s nothing special, standard Countryish harmony, woman on top.

The Civil Wars are something wholly other. Joy goes down below JP’s head voice, which overlaps her nether range, their vocal lines meshing and intermingling and intertwining and all that stuff.

We’re talking about two exceptionally expressive singers generating an awful lot of heat. Sure sounds to me like Leonard Cohen wrote ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ for The Civil Wars.

Her (before the breakup): “When he started singing it was like I knew where he was going to go before he went there.”

Him: “There was this weird click; it was like there was a dance going where I knew I could lead her but she could lead me, too.”

One night in 2012 they canceled a show in England mid-tour “due to internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.” And they haven’t spoken since.

Her (on the breakup, the strain of touring with her husband present as the band’s manager): “How do we stay connected as a couple in order for that to not be something that gets in the way or gets in the middle?’ And that was something that we worked really hard on in our marriage throughout the existence of the Civil Wars. … Saying yes to something means saying no to something else. Saying no to something means saying yes to something else. You have to weigh … you have to weigh those questions very deeply. And um … that happened for me.

Him (on the breakup): Silence. Not. One. Word.

Joy Williams was frequently interviewed in gossipy music rags about the heat they exuded on stage and their sudden breakup. (I read a bunch of them—not due to any salacious interest, you understand, purely for disinterested research purposes.) There’s a lot more obfuscation than clarification.

In 2009, they were just getting some attention; their only recording was a live performance. They learned that their song “Poison & Wine” was going to appear in “Grey’s Anatomy” in another four days. They ran to record the song in a studio and then to make this video in a few hours.

Joy and John Paul were actually a foot and a half apart in that last shot. So said Joy in one of those interviews. Well, she was there and I wasn’t, but I sure can feel the heat of their breath.

Gossip and stage persona aside, The Civil Wars made some knockout music. There recordings are all very fine, but the magic happens on stage. I chose that B&W clip of ‘Billie Jean’ (a song written and originally performed by Michael, the baby of The Jackson 5—remember him?) as Song of The Week because it was the first clip of theirs I fell for. I could have easily chosen this one.

Or this one. Nothing flirtatious about that, is there?

Or this flagrantly sultry one. And listen to the crowd lap it up.

And then I watched about 8 more clips of Joy and John Paul making musical love.

Then I went and took a cold shower.