“I’m gonna stand here in the ache,” Joy Williams wails in “Until The Levee,” a song that comes just past the middle of the arc her new solo album, VENUS, creates. She seems to nearly strain her warm, urgent voice, which many came to love in Williams’ early Christian-music recordings — and many more adored as one half of the sound of the now-defunct Civil Wars. But then comes a break as she offers an image of tumultuous release: “Until the levee or my heart breaks.” It’s a fascinating twist on an old blues trope, one that personalizes and feminizes it; Williams pushes into it, showing that she’s well aware that Robert Plant laid claim to this language before, but sure in her right to rebuild the metaphor with the mortar of her own tears.
“Until The Levee” is one of the songs Williams has described as a bridge connecting her work with The Civil Wars and this new, more adventurous pop sound. That duo’s sensibility is also evident in the circular structure of “The Dying Kind,” a profound meditation on mortality, and in the plaintive chorus of the wanderer’s ballad “Before I Sleep.” (Producer Charlie Peacock, who mentored The Civil Wars, is one of the three who oversaw this project.) But VENUS is also the chronicle and result of Williams breaking free of that connection, and its sonic palette goes in different directions. “I am a universe wrapped in skin,” Williams roars in “Woman (Oh Mama),” the album’s Peter Gabriel-inspired first single. She steps boldly to live up to that claim.
Much will be made of beats-driven Williams workouts like that one or “Not Good Enough,” with a chorus reminiscent of the Bruno Mars hit “Just The Way You Are.” The always-dubious association of the quietly daring Civil Wars with country and Americana music may make Williams’ leap into electronics shocking to some. In fact, throughout her career, Williams has used a wide variety of sounds, touching upon pop-rock and sparkly dance-pop in her solo material. Venus is really a return for her to the open-ended approach she’s long valued. She’s brought along a new openness to intimacy — the magical ingredient of The Civil Wars — that lends pathos to many of the songs on Venus.
Williams has a story people have wanted her to tell, which in its full form goes far beyond whatever acrimony separates her from her former singing partner John Paul White. (The two don’t communicate now.) Some cuts on VENUS clearly address White, including the unfussily devastating ballad “What A Good Woman Does.” But others address the major life changes that coincided with that split, including a rough time in Williams’ marriage, the birth of her son and the death of her father. Williams takes on this material without shirking its heaviness, but her gift for melodies that rise up like warm winds brings a climate of grace to even the most difficult subject matter.
The collaborators Williams chose for VENUS inhabit the same space she treasures, where spiritual and emotional insights can flower within a framework of singer-songwriterly, adult-oriented pop. This is the ground covered in years past by the singer’s inspirations, including Gabriel, Annie Lennox and Tori Amos. It’s where people like Peacock and singer-songwriter Matt Morris — one of VENUS‘ executive producers — have been making sophisticated, hard-to-categorize pop for years. If a certain introverted focus was key to The Civil Wars’ appeal, here is where Williams flings her arms open again.
Whether that embrace will be returned via a Top 40 hit is hard to say; commercial radio’s narrow parameters don’t necessarily make room for sophisticated grown women with things to say about motherhood, long-term love and feminist cosmologies. (This album would have fit in well in the Lilith Fair ’90s.) What’s clear is that this is where Williams really lives, what she really needs to say, in this musical language. She’ll stand in its ache and its ecstasy until she’s heard.