Clearly Joy Williams has been on quite a journey since the split of The Civil Wars. Venus shares a bit of that journey which is full of vulnerability and power, big beats and quiet vocals and everything in-between. There are times when Joy Williams, the soloist, is reminiscent of the partner in The Civil Wars, but much of her work is expressed new ways. As the mythic Venus was born out of the sea, Ms. Williams’ career is undergoing a rebirth (her second since her Contemporary Christian artist days) and this album is indicative of that change. While I will deeply miss the harmonies of The Civil Wars, I’m excited about the new album and where Ms. Williams is heading. Yes, we hear her haunting, lilting voice that has the breathy fade which is so familiar, but we also hear her sing with a pop beat (and backing band) and with more power.
“Before I Sleep” embodies all of this mix in one song with a driving, relentless beat of all that haunts her. It dips into introspective moments, but we cannot stay there. We’re pushed to find relief: “I got miles and miles to go before I sleep/ Before I can feel anything, before I’m free/ I got miles and miles to go before I sleep.”
Contrast this with the relatively straightforward pop love song of “Sweet Love of Mine,” albeit a good pop love song on which she puts the stamp of her rhythmic voice: “When you found me, I was all alone/ The whole world around me, but nowhere to call home/ I heard your voice sing like heaven’s choir/ Gathered up my fears and threw them in the fire.”
When I first heard “Woman (Oh Mama)” I thought it was a song with a great, almost tribal beat that was the most politically correct bit of hubris I’ve heard in quite some time. After all, we have lyrics like: “I am the Universe wrapped in skin” as well as “Woman shoulder the men of the nation/ Woman free you from sorrow and shame.” So, you can see how I fell into my mistake. I say this because I’m reminded how easy it is to take snatches of what one hears and readily dismiss the whole song. Once I had the full measure of the song, I now realize the point is that women, and in particular, Joy Williams cannot be pigeon-holed, but is part of everything, good and bad: “Woman monster, woman child,/Woman hero, woman wild/Woman whisper, woman scream/Woman listen, woman free.” I suspect she felt that folks might think if she broke out of the sound of The Civil Wars, she’s betraying herself and “selling-out.” She can be pop and blues, alternate rock and bluegrass. Did I mention how much I love the beat?
I love how “One Day I Will” invites us into this journey of pain with a simple, beautiful single piano note and Ms. Williams’ dulcet voice: “I’d love to write a happy song/ One day I will/ I’d like to feel a little less alone/ One day I will.” So, let’s just say that this is not a happy place. But there is a sense of hope embedded within the song. The simple piano is joined with an underlying bass beat that suggests there may be light: “And even though right now, I don’t feel strong/ One day I will, one day/ One day I will remember how it felt/ When it was good.”
“Not Good Enough,” “What a Good Woman Does,” and “You Love Me” seem to form a musical triptych. We see an initial plea to push to work things together while, peripherally, we see the inevitable doom with “When will we ever learn that perfect is just not good enough?” Not even perfect is good enough anymore for this couple. The next track brings us to a place where the break has already occurred, but he’s told not to presume that a quiet response means weakness: “I haven’t lost my voice without you near me/ I can tell the truth about you leaving/ But that’s not what a good woman does.” Sonically, “Not Good Enough” has more movement where “What a Good Woman Does” is quieter and introspective. The integration of piano, voice and strings are spot-on as well as artfully placed pauses. The triptych is completed in “You Love Me” which provides a redeeming end of unconditional love: ” I thought you wouldn’t love me if I didn’t do everything right/So I lied to tell the truth and hid myself most of all from you/Good was never perfect, perfect never could be good enough for me/But I tried and I failed/And you loved me.” … and depression is averted. Musically, “You Love Me” is tied in with a simple piano introduction and light melody of “Not Good Enough.” It takes us from a couple for whom perfect is never good enough to one in which failure is embraced, where we love people wherever they are. The light melody has a bit of a comfortable relief in its pacing. It’s not boisterous or jubilant but deeply at peace-evoking the knowledge that she is loved unconditionally.
“Until the Levee” seems to be the track most reminiscent of the Ms. Williams work with The Civil Wars. It contains a powerful, simple beat that says I’m going to face this ache head on and come out stronger or break. Its simplicity and power are compelling as is Ms. Williams’ voice. It is tempting, at this point, to wonder if these songs are somewhat autobiographical of Ms. Williams experience of the break-up of the band. Clearly what she’s going through informs her work, but I think these themes are a bit more universal than that particular loss.
“The Dying Kind” seems to lament of the Fall of Man in the garden while laced with hope: “Every rose has its thorn; every thorn has its crown/We’re all the dying kind.” It reminds us who we are and our fallen condition but also calls us to remember that grace which God lavishes on us even in our fallen condition. It is a grace for which God pays the price of a crown of thorns and a cross in unconditional, redeeming love. “Till Forever” is another kind of love song, one of growing stronger together in love: “How you move me/How you move me to love you/I keep choosing to love you again every morning.” Her breathy, modulating voice beautifully brings out this theme.
Nicely enough, Ms. Williams ends with the words we all so dearly want to hear: “Welcome Home.” She sings of a true home where we belong and are welcomed whatever else may befall us: “Welcome home/Come inside from the cold and rest your weary soul/You belong, you are loved, you are wanted/You’re not alone/I’ve missed you so.”
The album allows Joy Williams to fully come out on her own, highlighting her beautiful, modulating voice and her ability to bare her soul in words. It is musically diverse, produced well with clearly more complexity than two singers and a guitar but not over-produced. It’s a great album which I encourage you to give some real focused listening.