Venus: the Roman goddess of love and fertility. An appropriate title for Joy Williams, given she’s experienced a loss of the former and the pleasure of the latter in the years since the well-documented break-up of The Civil Wars. Williams has now selected the best of 80 songs written by her with co-writers other than John-Paul.
Within one minute of opening statement Before I Sleep, Civil Wars fans will notice that the soundscape is no longer quirky covers at the campfire. This tallies with an interview in which Joy said she was able to write more freely when she told it straight and stopped ‘hiding behind metaphor’, and also behind the sweetness of a second voice layering extra harmonies. Acolytes can have fun spotting the barbs, Ed Sheeran-style, but there’s much more to the album than Strong Independent Female Dissing Former Friend And Lover.
Drum machines and held piano or string notes root the songs in steady rhythmic pulses, and the voice, often layered on itself, is central throughout. In her swooping melodies, delivered in alto, she sounds like a Scots or Irish folk singer (your Cara Dillon, your Julie Fowlis) but located in American roots music. Tori Amos or Fiona Apple without the angst would be a more apt musical setting, or one can imagine Lorde touching these heights some day.
Till Forever and Sweet Love of Mine are both in a musical setting that invokes both Bjork and Suzanne Vega, with lush chord changes, a voice close to the microphone and head-nodding beats. Woman (Oh Mama) is quicker, poppier and a good choice of single, and a much better pro-lady track than any chart-pop offering. What a Good Woman Does picks up the theme and sets it to a proud piano, a descendant of Sarah McLachlan’s anthems for the modern female.
The cinematic Welcome Home (“It’s so good to see your face”) is a highlight and great closing song, with its quivering violins backing Joy’s familiar keening vocal. Rich with vibrato, she sings like a violinist’s rich romantic adagio on the slower tracks, which would make any strings-only arrangements of Venus’s tracks a welcome treat. Florence, when she grows up, will make music like Venus. So it stands that fans of grown-up, well-crafted pop will love an album that gets better the more you bask in it.
Venus by Joy Williams can be ordered here.