Maureen is a twenty-something Virginia native whose notable accomplishments include…
Initially I could not bring myself to listen to VENUS, the newest solo album by singer-songwriter Joy Williams. This had nothing to do with her as an artist or her experimentation with new musical techniques, but because I simply could not let go of the breakup of The Civil Wars, the duo that launched Williams and singer-songwriter John Paul White into the spotlight until their announced separation last year. While you may not have been as obsessed with The Civil Wars as I was and watched every music video, live acoustic session, and interview they did during their time together, you might recognize Grammy-winning song “Barton Hollow” or “Safe and Sound,” a song which the duo collaborated with little-known singer Taylor Swift and which was featured on “The Hunger Games” soundtrack. The duo’s harmonious voices were not only enchanting, but their mesmerizing performances and the way they looked at each other prompted frequent allegations of romantic involvement between the pair. Songs such as “To Whom it May Concern” and “Poison & Wine” certainly fed into the romantic fantasies that listeners’ perpetuated, despite the continuous declarations that they were happily married to their respective spouses.
In 2014 things could not have seemed to go better for the duo. It seemed that years of hard work and touring the country had paid off, and listeners looked forward to what the pair would produce next. But the songs they released began to take on a heavier tone; the content becoming seemingly pointed at the strained relationship between the duo themselves. Perhaps this was reading too much into the songs, but at least the visual manifestation of songs like “The One That Got Away” and “Dust to Dust” prompted many listeners, including myself, to sense a growing rift between the pair that may not have been purely professional. While a break seemed imminent, few were prepared for the permanent separation announced just six years after Williams and White had joined musical forces and only two years since they won their first Grammy. Many feared those raw, emotional, folksy voices would be lost forever.
While White has remained quiet since the pair’s split, Williams began to emerge slowly from the ashes of what so many believed to be a destroyed music career. Sneak peeks of songs and album covers began to appear on her Instagram and Facebook account (this time separate from The Civil Wars account), until, finally, VENUS was released this past June. Critics and listeners had waited for months to hear the reasons behind the end of The Civil Wars, and many saw this album as the answer to the rumors and lingering questions. Williams herself stated that several songs on the album alluded to the professional breakup. But the album is more than an explanation or an attempt to explain the reasons behind a breakup that was certainly more convoluted than meets the eye. Rather than abandoning the known artistry of The Civil Wars and ignoring the separation entirely, Williams dives head-first into the trials of commitment, love, journeys, and womanhood; in an essence, she remains true to her raw and emotional artistry, while also stretching her musical muscles in empowering and intriguing directions.
A one paragraph review by Rolling Stone gave VENUS two and a half stars while claiming that Williams record is “archetypal…a woman dusts herself off for a journey of reinvention that feels very ‘Eat, Pray, Love.’” Yet the writer of this article, a Mr. Will Hermes, completely misses the point. Yes, the album is about a transformation and Williams’ journey from duo to solo recording, but it is also an incredibly powerful record about the trials and tribulations of motherhood and womanhood. In the past year Williams has experienced the death of her father, the birth of her son, Miles, and an open and frank discussion of a rocky patch in her marriage to husband and manager Nate Yetton. Williams’ record is the culmination of all of these stories while offering, as she states, a space for one’s own emotions to emerge and connect to the music. Perhaps the song that most exemplifies this on the record is “Woman (Oh Mama),” a raw and earthy song with a tribal beat that makes you want to get up and dance as much as it forces you to stop and think. Williams’ lyrics appeal equally to an upbeat tune as they do to a more to the complex and paradoxical aspects of being a woman: “Woman carry the burden of knowledge/Woman always the one to be blamed/Woman shoulder the men of the nation/Woman free you from sorrow and shame.” The song is neither radically feminist nor apologizing; rather it strips bare the layers of womanhood in a way that should make women (and men) feel proud of the female sex and all that they burden and accomplish. Williams’ lyrics not only speak to her own experiences as an artist, wife, mother, and woman, but to anyone who has experienced love and loss and had to find their way back to themselves again.
I wonder, with the known complexities of being a mother or a woman in general (not to mention all of the personal struggles anyone faces), how Mr. Hermes could simplify Williams into a mere “archetype.”
In an NPR review of the album, writer Ann Powers makes an intriguing point that a sophisticated song like “Woman (Oh Mama)” will generally not appear on Top 40 airwaves. Indeed, as I look back on the past few months, the summer has been largely filled with hit songs by men about their solid commitment to their female counterparts (I’m thinking of songs like OMI’s “Cheerleader” and Andy Grammer’s “Honey I’m Good”) which are praised for their messages of fidelity and monogamy. These songs are certainly catchy and I am not intending to insinuate that such songs by male artists are in any way unworthy of listening to. Moreover, I understand that summer is generally the time for “feel-good” songs like “Marvin Gaye.” But life is not all about bubble gum and rainbows and “getting it on” like Gaye. While many popular female singers continue to sing about the man they want, the man they have, or the lyin’-cheatin’ man who got away, Williams satisfies the search for sophisticated as well as catchy songs that speak to the heartbreak, journeys, and moments of rebirth we all face. More than this, Williams exemplifies a woman and female artist who exudes confidence, humility, talent, and passion. It is hard to ask for more than that.
Many thought that Williams’ career was on an extended hiatus–if not over–with the disintegration of The Civil Wars. Williams addresses this very notion in “What a Good Woman Does” by singing: “Hear me/I haven’t lost my voice without you near me,” proving that in many ways her career is just beginning. In fact, in a recent interview, Williams boldly observes: “I had been looking left for so long [at John Paul], and now suddenly I’m looking out ahead of me.” We hear you, Joy and what a view it seems to be.
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