Few things are more personal than words. Words can pull emotion out of both the darkest places and the most joyful times. Words can bring tears, inspire great change or evoke deep fears. Like a book that helps you see another perspective. A song that brings tears. A speech that ignites a passion. Whether it’s poetry or prose, novels or lectures, all are words intended to draw a reaction or an emotion from the audience. Music does the same thing. Words put together in a perfect formula to incite a particular reaction. Words, be it music or writing, serve as an escape for me. Perhaps it’s because often, someone else’s words explain how I feel better than I’m able to do. Someone else’s words to help explain another time and another place. Words to explain history I wasn’t able to live. Words to explain emotions I didn’t know how to feel.
Monday, I escaped into a beautiful world of melodies and words. I use my own words in this space for the sole hope of never forgetting how I felt listening to Joy Williams and John Paul White, most commonly known as The Civil Wars. The sound that comes from these two is exquisite. And it’s pure.
Two voices and a guitar. Occasionally, a piano. It works, and it works well. When Williams opens her mouth, the hairs on my neck stand up. Her voice is so pure and emotional. You can feel the meaning behind the lyrics in her voice. Watching her sing — she moves in this whimsical way, almost like a ballerina moves across the stage. She has the perfect amount of play around the microphone, the perfect movements. There’s a grace to Williams, a vulnerability, like a fragile doll. The way she moves falls in line with her words: “In the meantime, I’ll be waiting for twenty years and twenty more.” You can feel the sadness, the sorrow in her voice — as if she’s truly been waiting 20 years. Maybe she has… for this stage with this partner.
Or maybe it’s because the words penned by White and Williams are relatable. “The less I give, the more I get back. Your hands can heal, your hands can bruise. I don’t have a choice, but I still choose you. I don’t love you, but I always will.” You can feel the draw, the pull, in these words. It’s the rawness of that relationship from your past — the one you put so much of yourself into but didn’t see the fruit — the one relationship that for the rest of your life, when you hear that name or that song or see that car, your emotions will always take you back. The Civil Wars elicit that emotion because the focus is on their voices — the feelings, the pain, the emotion. It’s honest.
The audience heard a new song Monday called “Same old. Same old.” It’s not been released, nor has it been heard by a live audience. It was perfection. Written about a relationship of heartache and despair, falling into the same old habits, but agreeing to do the same old things with that person forever. It was pure. The words. The guitar. The vocals.
When these two sing, you can feel the anguish, the desire behind the lyrics. Williams has a way of reaching your heart with her voice. You become entranced by her voice and you hear every word of the lyric. She’s genuine. The melodies are smooth and transitional, careful not to interrupt the story. Perfect in key. Perfect in pitch. Perfect in sound. True songwriters. True storytellers.
I found myself falling into a spell listening to these two Monday night. More than once, I felt tears form in the corners of my eyes as I listened. When you take a beautiful sound from guitar strings, combine it with an incredible vocal gift and then add lyrics like “slowly counting down the days till I know your name. The way your hand feels ’round my waist, the way you laugh, the way your kisses taste. I’ve missed you, but I haven’t met you. Oh, but I want to, how I do.” Perhaps it’s because the lyrics are what my heart feels. Maybe that’s why I feel so connected when I listen to The Civil Wars. But I don’t think their spell has only captured me. They seem to have entranced the likes of many people.
Words and music have the innate ability to forego time. They can take you back to a memory in a moment. Others can carry your imagination to a new place, full of hope and possibilities. “C’est la Mort” is one of those songs. The hope and possibility of having a love so big, so passionate, you don’t want to live — or die — without them.
I was familiar with Williams before she became one-half of this band. But together, what she and White are able to do, is breathtaking. They are a beautiful depiction of what music is supposed to be. There’s no flash, no big band, no presumption of fame. Just a singer, a songwriter and the tools of their trade. It’s perfect bliss. And Monday, I lost myself in an auditorium of 1,500 others. It was glorious.
I close my eyes, and these two musicians lose me in the music and the words. If you haven’t had the pleasure, please listen to them. And by all means, see them live.
*This review is an honest interpretation of how music — the Civil Wars in particular — move me. I am not an expert, nor do I pretend to know anything about music. I just know it moves me, and music one of my very favorite things.