Release Date: Jun 29, 2015
Record label: Columbia
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Contemporary Singer/Songwriter
Joy Williams, known to much of the world as half of the now defunct Grammy-winning Americana duo the Civil Wars, offers her first solo LP in a decade. In light of the much publicized dissolution of her partnership with bandmate John Paul White, her return to solo work comes loaded with the weight of fan expectations and the tumultuous life changes that occurred prior to the album's release. On a tip from friend Justin Timberlake, she connected with producer and multi-instrumentalist Matt Morris to craft the 11 songs that would become Venus, an expansive, decidedly modern record that marries Spartan electronic landscapes with warm acoustic elements.
If Joy Williams weren’t the distaff half of the Grammy-winning Civil Wars, Venus might play like a late 20th century single-sex college’s elite women’s studies program’s exploration of female tropes and a deep dive on scorned loverhood. Given the mystery and extended silence about the demise of the stark musical duo, many songs here read like whispered innuendo about what really happened. Listening to “What A Good Woman Does” traces a razor-drawn portrait of the end of a relationship.
Joy Williams is starting over again. She released several successful Christian-oriented albums in the early 00’s before teaming up late in the decade with singer/guitarist John Paul White to form the folk duo the Civil Wars. But the duo, despite earning Grammy accolades and near-instant fame in the folk-Americana genre, apparently wasn’t built to last.
Naming your album after the Roman goddess of love, beauty, fertility, sex, prosperity and desire could be a foolhardy move. After all, Joy Williams, formerly of the much lamented, and very definitely never coming back The Civil Wars – and even more formerly than that, a Christian pop star who released some actually splendid music for the Reunion label in what must seem to her a previous life – is giving herself quite a lot to live up to with a title like that. That said, the release of this solo album, released a year after the final nail was driven in to the coffin of the band that took her into the upper echelons of the folk world with John Paul White, makes it obvious that a lot has happened to shake her world, and her worldview, so the stridency of Venus should perhaps come as no surprise.
The tension between brooding country boy John Paul White and recovering Christian-pop singer Joy Williams gave the Civil Wars' smoldering folk rock an archetypal sexiness. Williams' first solo set following their split is archetypal, too — a woman dusts herself off for a journey of reinvention that feels very Eat, Pray, Love. The LP's gospel-flavored synth-pop is invitingly adventurous, but Williams can't hold the space like her touchstones here.
There is something spine-tinglingly thrilling about “Venus,” the fourth full-length solo album from Joy Williams, but the first since the 2014 demise of her Grammy-winning roots duo Civil Wars. You can actually hear the California native, a former contemporary Christian-pop singer, discover who she is as she moves through this unsparingly intimate, deeply moving 11-song cycle. If fans and critics argued about which genre the Civil Wars should be slotted into — folk? country? Americana? — the debate should be less confusing now that Williams has fully embraced her inner Kate Bush (and Peter Gabriel and Portishead), zooming into the present with an ambient sound that elegantly threads together folk authenticity, pop instincts, and trip-hop grooves.