Last week the highly-publicized civil war between The Civil Wars came to a not-so-shocking conclusion: They have broken up, for good.
The folk duo went on hiatus in November 2012, cancelling their tour and kicking up a storm of speculation about alleged “internal discord.” The conflict, which remains ambiguous, didn’t prevent the duo from releasing a second and final album last summer. After a year of silence, they once again make headlines only to quash whatever hope remained that they might reconcile and get back on the road. In memoriam: Snafu aside, The Civil Wars made fantastic music.
Although never romantically “together,” The Civil Wars created music that spoke to the ins and outs of real relationships. Often, they wrote songs about two people who are together but feel far, far apart. Poison and Wine, their first hit from their debut album Barton Hollow (2011), boasts the lyrics, “I don’t love you but I always will.” That’s vague enough to mean nearly anything to anyone, but the contradiction remains a perfect lead-in to the rest of their music, which unveils relational tensions resonant with the human heart. Henri Nouwen argues that “Intimacy between people requires closeness as well as distance. It is like dancing.” Over the course of two raw albums and one short-lived career, The Civil Wars give life to this so-called dance.
In a less tender way, Birds of a Feather explores fidelity and the challenges of living within a covenantal framework. Taking on the tone of a middle-aged couple, they bicker: “She’s the absinthe on my lips, the splinter in my fingertips, but who could do without you? ….Dancing with a ball and chain, through it all we still remain.” With unrestrained emotion and honesty, The Civil Wars give expression to the paradox of relationship: somehow united and separated at the same time.
Even in the closest relationships, pain is an inescapable part of the bond—a past offense, or a present distance, or two unaligned desires. We experience these troughs and peaks with God as well. Despite our promise of salvation, He often seems far from us, and we, of course, are “prone to wander,” maybe even taking methodical steps in the wrong direction. God would be blameless to say that, with me, he’s dancing with a ball and chain. Somehow, though, he doesn’t say that.
The Civil Wars also open redemptive doors. Their song Dust to Dust captures our new covenant with unconditional love:
All your acting, your thin disguise,
All your perfectly delivered lines,
They don’t fool me—
You’ve been lonely too long
Henri Nouwen acknowledges this relational dance that The Civil Wars tap into so poignantly. He cites Ecclesiastes, writing,
“‘A time for mourning, a time for dancing.’ But mourning and dancing are never fully separated. Their “times” do not necessarily follow each other. In fact, their “times” may become one “time.” Mourning may turn into dancing and dancing into mourning without showing a clear point where one ends and the other starts.
Often our grief allows us to choreograph our dance while our dance creates the space for our grief. We lose a beloved friend, and in the midst of our tears we discover an unknown joy. We celebrate a success, and in the midst of the party we feel deep sadness. Mourning and dancing, grief and laughter, sadness and gladness—they belong together as the sad-faced clown and the happy-faced clown, who make us both cry and laugh. Let’s trust that the beauty of our lives becomes visible where mourning and dancing touch each other.”
The Civil Wars explore the line where mourning and dancing touch. And, just for kicks, it’s worth mentioning their obviously rockin Christiany songs, From This Valley, and the most winter-warm version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel that I’ve ever heard. Also notable is their soundtrack for A Place at the Table, a documentary on hunger in America, which was quietly released in the midst of their break.
With all this beauty in their paradoxical career, it would be a shame to let The Civil Wars’ “irreconcilable differences of ambition” stand out in our memories over their real accomplishments: capturing the raw feelings of real relationships and creating beauty out of pain. Their music confronts the darkness of the inner-person who longs for more. As the leaves begin to change and creation boasts of death, and as you reflect on Nouwen’s challenge, consider letting The Civil Wars be the soundtrack to your decay.