Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tuesday Tune: "Poison & Wine" by The Civil Wars

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the War Between the States when Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter and began a very uncivil four-year struggle over ideology and territory.  Today, we turn our attention to a man and a woman who, in their own modern microcosmic way, sing songs about that same kind of disunion between the sexes.  Call it the War Between the Sheets.

Like 130,000 others of you, I first came to The Civil Wars through their free EP Live at Eddie's Attic which showcased the duo's harmonic blend and, during the between-songs chatter, sense of humor and self-deprecation.  The overwhelming response to that free download proved Joy Williams and John Paul White had an instant fan base when it came time this year to release their full-length debut Barton Hollow.  I liked Live at Eddie's Attic and I liked Barton Hollow.

But when I fell in love with The Civil Wars was one particular moment.  Last night, in fact.  I knew I wanted to feature them on this week's Tuesday Tune and so I did the usual YouTube search, found "Poison & Wine," then clicked Play.  As the video progressed, something stirred inside--the hot, wet prickle of emotion.  For starters, the music vid is itself an evocative mini-movie that tells a story as succinctly as Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants."  Strip away the modifiers, pare down the dialogue, cut to the chase.

In the video, Williams and White enter a house after attending what could be a wedding or a funeral (another subtle nod to the song's theme of divisiveness--it implies the idea of coming together and the need for departure).  Or, even more likely, perhaps they've just returned from their attorney's office.  They don't look at each other and you sense we're witness to the silent aftermath of an argument, one that's been building for a long time.  As they each start singing their lines, they go to separate rooms, their faces pinched with sadness.
Your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine
You think your dreams are the same as mine
Oh I don't love you but I always will
Oh your hands can heal, your hands can bruise
I don't have a choice but I still choose you
Oh I don't love you but I always will
What starts as a somber meditation on the brutally honest things you can't tell your lover rises to a mutual cry of pain.  Each partner in this relationship is building their own brick wall, but it's a melancholy task.  Then, in a brilliant moment of editing around 2:45, they are together in the same frame, nose to nose and still singing "I don't love you but I always will."  If you're anything like me*, you'll be coughing down that lump in your throat at this point.  This, then, this was the moment my admiration for The Civil Wars turned to love.  The dichotomy of emotion in the climax of the song nearly shattered my computer monitor in half.

Everything about White and Williams' songwriting partnership seems to speak to the tug-push tension of all relationships (because, let's not kid ourselves, even the most hunky-dory marriage has its moments of misunderstanding and petulance and hurt).  Starting with their very name and continuing down to the lyrics of some of their songs (but especially "Poison & Wine"), the pair sings as if they were on opposite ends of a room with their voices meeting and twining together in the barren middle space.  Even the cover photo of Barton Hollow, shot through the window of a diner, makes it look like the two of them are sitting in a booth with a pane of glass reflected between them.

Their voices are another matter altogether, blending and complementing with timing and harmony (calling to mind the great duet between Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, "Falling Slowly" from the Once soundtrack).  Their repartee on Live at Eddie's Attic shows they have a warm, respectful rapport with one another.  It all adds up to a beautiful contradiction between lyrics and melody--and it's that intersection between North and South, Him vs. Her, that makes me lean closer to the music and fall in love.

(to see a larger version of the video, click on the YouTube icon)

If you'd like to buy "Poison & Wine" from Amazon, CLICK HERE.  Or, better yet, buy the whole damn album by CLICKING HERE.

*a S.N.A.G. (Sensitive New Age Guy)


  1. Agree, agree. 100%. Been seeing Barton Hollow on VH1, which made me want to look for more. I agree that I fell in love with The Civil Wars after finding their Poison & Wine video. The lyrics touch me. Great stuff.

  2. If you could wear out a digital album, then mine would be approaching doom.