The second -- and likely final -- studio album by The Civil Wars deserves to be considered one of the year’s highlights in pop culture melodrama even before it's released. If my hunches are correct, the album will find itself in the pantheon of Timeless Art Borne Of Dysfunction, beside such classics as Rumors, “Casablanca,” “Apocalypse Now," and "Jon & Kate Plus 8.”
In fact, before I’ve heard a single note from the new album (out Tuesday, August 6), I’m going to review it in four words and do so with supreme confidence:
“Better than Barton Hollow.”
If you know about the band but didn’t know about their relationship, think back to the days of The Separation & Divorce of Roseanne and Tom Arnold, and you’ve got the general idea. If you are looking for deeper and more personal look at it, you can read Joy Williams’ interview with The Associated Press.
But let’s think more about Roseanne and Tom for a minute. What happened to both of them after we stopped caring that they hated each other? Exactly. Their hatred was great theater, and it’s reasonable to believe the hatred inspired a brief stretch of decent performances out of Tom Arnold (especially “True Lies”), a man everyone knew to be an NTAC when we first saw him on screen. He was the male Anna Nicole Smith. Except that he wasn’t even famous for posing nude before hooking up with Roseanne.
A band named The Civil Wars was almost predestined to be short-lived. (Fun fact: The Civil Wars the band outlasted The Civil War the war, but just barely. If they ever get back together, I hope they rename themselves The Civil Union.)
I bought Barton Hollow after hearing the first 30 seconds of “Poison & Wine,” their knee-buckling song of dysfunctional relations that left me gasping for breath and wishing for happier times, like back when E.T. turned white and keeled over, or when Alice jumps off the cliff after Uncas dies. “Poison & Wine” is easily one of the most heartbreakingly perfect songs ever to be written about people who don’t know how to leave one another.
But here’s the dark secret about Barton Hollow, an album that hit Gold in the U.S., rare air for spare country/folk music: it’s only got two really great songs, and this is hardly up for debate. The rest of the album is full of what can best be described as “decent” and worst be called “slow and occasionally plodding.” The two songs are so amazing that they actually elevate the album into something more, but give me any dozen songs by Lori McKenna or Patty Griffin, and that’s a better album than The Civil Wars’ studio debut.
But their second album? That will be a different story. They cut their teeth on the road. They're older and wiser as musicians in the public eye. They recorded with Taylor Swift and sang a Michael Jackson cover. They became A Real Band... even if they grew to despise one another in the process. They made this album despite their spite, which to me suggests it was an album that had to be made, that would have haunted both their souls if it was left lingering in notebooks and in draft form. All that resentment and dysfunction from events we can only lustily imagine in our prurient thoughts will build a timeless classic.
I’m betting The Civil Wars go out with a big bang. And maybe, if the explosion is powerful enough, it might even find a way to spark new life...