The great mystery that sews intrigue at the root of 'The Civil Wars' is how two people who clearly don't get along can pretend with such conviction. The second album from this duo isn't tainted by disdain, contempt or ambivalence that hardens one's heart. In fact, it's more emotional than their Grammy-winning debut album. So clearly they're either brilliant actors, or they're in love.

The Civil Wars' self-titled followup is an album oozing with love, despair, suffering and heartache. There's but one ray of sunshine -- the pleasantly peppy, although somewhat out of place 'From This Valley' -- to break up a 100-year storm. If there is a song that addresses the issues between Joy Williams and John Paul White, it's not obvious. The dark themes on this album mostly focus on issues between two lovers, not two co-workers.

For all its acclaim, 'Barton Hallow' was a bit soporific after the title track. 'The Civil Wars' addresses that early and often. 'The One That Got Away' and 'I Had Me a Girl' sacrifice none of the lyrical substance to include thick guitars and real power behind the two voices. There's true grit between the words of songs on 'The Civil Wars.'

"I had me a girl / Like cigarette smoke / She came and she went," White sings on the second track. It's a shocking start for anyone expecting more of the subdued flavors of their debut.

Later, 'Oh Henry' matches the intensity. Williams' song warning to her lover is heard, but especially felt. It digs between the ribs and dances around to cause just the slightest bit of discomfort.

"When we wed, we said forever ever and a day / The whole town heard you promise to be true / So, boy you're gonna only give your gypsy heart to me / If it's the last thing you do," she sings, sounding much more likely to back up her threat than the Band Perry do on 'Better Dig Two.'

The backbone of this album is still the songwriting. Drama, a breakup and a reunion (at least, that's how it seemed) have done nothing to muzzle the duo's dark, emotional storytelling. Williams and White write with such precision, summarizing full scenes in just a few words. 'Eavesdrop,' 'Same Old Same Old' and 'The One That Got Away' are three examples of their efficiency.

There's not much mainstream country appeal to 'The Civil Wars,' but they should have no trouble finding fans on the fringe who are willing to spend time unwrapping their more complicated works of art. 'Devil's Backbone' is a song that represents the duo well. It's ultimately a song about being in love with a bad boy, but 'She's in Love With the Boy' this is not. Spend time with the two covers (Smashing Pumpkins' 'Disarm' and Etta James' 'Tell Mama'), but focus on the 10 originals.

4.5 Stars

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