In support of her first solo album since the Civil Wars officially parted ways last August, Joy Williams played an eleven-song set to a tightly gathered, enthusiastic crowd at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. Although she and her new backing band did play a couple Civil Wars covers, gone are the sparse and plucky American Gothic accompaniment. Although she is very much the same Willliams vocally, the acoustic guitar has been swapped for a lush combination of live drums, canned drums, electro bleeps and bloops, and thick swells of synthetic strings. The contrast between current and former is striking, and is a solid signifier of Williams growth both as a person and as an artist.
After her sharing of some personal stories between songs, it is hard not to see why she has grown. With the Civil Wars she experienced roughly five years of critical and commercial success, and it is no secret that they ended on a rough note due to creative differences. In the time since, Williams has lost her father to cancer, became a mother, bought a house, and according to her, it would take several hours and several bottles of wine to get through it all — although she would be “fine with that.” But Williams came out swinging. Of the songs she sang from her upcoming album VENUS, which will be released June 30, there is, just as the title suggests, a prevalent theme of femininity and strength over adversity.
Starting with “What a Good Woman Does,” a sparse, voice and piano song, Williams invited the audience into her world of hurt and recovery, enchanting them against a vivid backdrop with a prominent circle motif in front of which she stood, waving her arms and dancing fluidly as she would for the rest of the set. Her band played behind the projection scrim, ghostly figures on keyboards and drums as cosmic and watery imagery swirled around her, evolving with every song change and mood change. Red orbs like blood cells become rising bubbles turning into starbursts and approaching nebula, tree branches, neurons, and even rotating flowers. At one point the central circle attained the image of a gigantic eye with Williams as the pupil.
The intensity of the performance and complexity of the arrangements waxed and waned throughout the set. String pads like a an Angelo Badalamenti score on “The Dying Kind” were dispatched by the introduction of electro beats. “Before I Sleep” began with cool meditation as ice crystals formed around her, shattering as the energy bursts into jubilant rhythms while a ghostly gospel choir haunts the mix in a dizzying flurry of sounds. By the fifth song, “Not Good Enough,” which began with a glitchy loop sounding like something from Thom Yorke’s The Eraser, it was abundantly clear that Williams is fully committed in her reinvention, visiting every mood necessary to tell her story.
Though her signature breathy delivery is often lacking in melodic hooks that invite the listener to belt them out along with her, it is instead laced with lyrical hooks, often in the form of sentimental touchstones that border on the cliché: “Miles and miles to go before I sleep,” and the borrowed “Every rose has its thorn,” are two such lines that immediately come to mind. Then again, they are lines that really stick with you and don’t get lost in the wandering vocal melodies that often seem to be searching for a center. It wasn’t until eight songs in that Williams really stretched her pipes and found that center on the exultant “Until the Levee,” belting out the chorus, bypassing the ears and going straight for the chest. After that, Williams performed a captivating rendition of Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World.” Musically and rhythmically stripped down, Williams’ voice gave the song a stronger emotional core than the detached original, owning the lines as if they were hers.
Following the cover, she performed one more Civil Wars song — the Orbison-esque “Dust to Dust” — before ending on a supremely high but overtly Southern note with the lead single from VENUS, “Woman (Oh Mama).” Tribal and industrial beats complemented syntactically simplified lyrics that brought to mind work chants as railroad workers pound spikes into the ground, ultimately culminating in the use of the word “woman” as an exclamation; not in derision or frustration, but in the embracing of woman as a complex and powerful presence in a world that can sometimes be too dim, too entrenched in patriarchy to fully notice or acknowledge without slipping into condescension. Williams, both in her life and in her music, will not stand by and allow that to happen.
What a Good Woman Does
The Dying Kind
Before I Sleep
Sweet Love of Mine
Not Good Enough
The One That Got Away (The Civil Wars)
One Day I Will
Until the Levee
Ordinary World (Duran Duran)
Dust to Dust (The Civil Wars)
Woman (Oh Mama)