Well, well, well, this is an interesting album. When this duo — Joy Williams and John Paul White — were riding the surprising success of their 2011 album Barton Hollow, which won them three shiny Grammy awards, they kept insisting that they weren’t romantically involved with each other. In fact, they were both happily married to other people by all reports. But, their songs often required them to portray a couple on stage. And so people kept speculating that they’d wind up becoming a real couple, if they weren’t already one in secret. Then the exact opposite of that happened. Last November, while they were in Europe smack dab in the middle of their biggest tour yet, they threw everyone a curve ball when they announced that they were breaking up and canceling the remainder of the tour. Their press release cited “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.” But the next thing we knew, they were announcing that they were going to record a second album anyway. Wait — what? Who makes an album when they’ve already broken up? And how can they have differences of ambition if they were both on the same page about wanting to make a new record? And I would think there couldn’t be that much internal discord if they were able to sit down and write songs together. (Unless they collaborated over the internet and recorded their parts in separate studios, but I don’t think that’s the case.) I can’t help but wonder if they haven’t actually put their differences aside and reunited but they’re just not telling people yet because the record will sell better if people think they’ve broken up already. After all, fans and critics alike have been trying to find clues about the break up in the lyrics of the new songs. And everyone’s wondering which songs might be directed toward each other. For example, take the haunting and ferocious opening track, “The One That Got Away,” which finds them singing “Oh I wish I’d never, ever seen your face / I wish you were the one that got away.” They sing these lyrics in harmony, yes, but it certainly sounds like they’re directing the words at each other. I’d even go so far as to say that it sounds like they’re battling. Even the music, which includes mandolin, dobro and pedal-steal — sounds angry.
But then there are gorgeous tunes like “Eavesdrop” that could be interpreted as the two wanting to reconcile. “For all we’ve got / Don’t let go / Just hold me,” they sing during the sweet, heart-warming tune. And not long after that Joy sings “Don’t say that it’s over” with some serious yearning in her voice. You can easily picture the two of them hugging it out after recording that one. And the album has other heart-warming, positive moments, too. Take “From This Valley,” during which they sing, “I will pray, pray, pray ’til I see your smiling face.” The more I listen to it, the more I think it’s about two people coming back together, not splitting up.
Not all of the songs on the record would seem to be about the duo though. “Oh Henry,” for example, is about a woman who’s had enough of her cheating husband and she’s telling him just that. Of all the tracks on the album, this is the one that’s has the grittiest guitar sound. It even has some static-y electric guitar, which was probably suggested by co-producer Rick Rubin.
Another track that tells a story is the murder ballad “Devil’s Backbone,” which finds Williams singing, “Oh Lord, Oh Lord, I’m begging you please, don’t take the sinner in me.” Surprisingly, the gripping song would seem to have accordion in the mix, though you might not notice it the first time you listen to it. If Johnny Cash would have written a murder ballad for June Carter to sing, it probably would’ve been a lot like this.
Also noteworthy is their tender cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm,” which finds the duo singing, “The killer in me is the killer in you.” It’s one of those rare covers that rival the original, the duo’s rendition turning the song into something entirely eerie, yet still very beautiful.
Finally, I have to mention “Sacred Heart,” a sweet, gentle tune IN FRENCH, which the duo wrote in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Perhaps it’s partially because I’m a big fan of French music, but even if I wasn’t I’m sure I would still be moved by the artistry of this alluring song.
The only thing you can really say for sure about Joy Williams and John Paul White is that they make amazing music together. And perhaps that’s all we need to know about them. Because this album would still be one of the year’s best even if the duo had never split up and they were still happy, compatible partners in music.