For months, fans of the Civil Wars have been wondering whether Mommy and Daddy were getting divorced. In November, midway through the duo’s tour for their mountain-folk breakthrough, Barton Hollow, Joy Williams and John Paul White (who are actually married to other people) abruptly announced that due to ”differences of ambition,” they were going on hiatus — though they nurtured a ”sincere hope” for new music in 2013.
While the result might seem a little like that awkward first post-split Christmas when Dad comes back and crashes on the couch — note the cagey eponymous title, The Civil Wars, and vaguely menacing smoke on the cover — it turns out that, well, conflict suits them: White’s electric guitar is cranked up, Williams’ vocal knives are sharpened, and there are serious sparks in the pair’s ever-loving harmonies; they can be merciless bruising up a pretty ballad. On the acoustic heartbreaker ”Same Old Same Old,” they coo the bitterest, most shivery lines together: ”I’m gonna break things, I’m gonna cross the line/Make you wake up…I’m gonna say it if you won’t.” But really, it’s the Joy Williams show. The singer — a California native who was recording not-bad Christian pop as recently as 2010 — doses the Wars’ sound with her special blend of snake oil. On ”Tell Mama,” her version of maternal is downright oedipal, and on the climax of ”The One That Got Away,” she matches White’s crashing guitar with a metal-chick wail. This may be a profitable neo-folk marriage, but she’s no Mumford Wife. B+