Joy Williams and the redemption of Venus

John J. Thompson

The last time Joy Williams released a solo album she was a blond purveyor of effervescent Christian pop. A career reboot led to a surprising wave of commercial and critical success as half of the alt-country/neo-folk act The Civil Wars, followed by the equally surprising crash and burn of that Grammy Award-winning duo. Now Williams is back with a lushly produced, highly arranged solo album called Venus.

There has been a lot of water under Williams’ artistic bridge in the decade since her last solo effort. From the drama surrounding the dissolution of The Civil Wars to the death of her father to the challenges of being a wife and a new mother, the turmoil of the past few years makes its way into these grooves in one way or another.

While the musical palette Williams uses has changed considerably, her sultry and seductive essence is more than intact. While The Civil Wars’ music was often a study in unrequited physical chemistry, Venus is a thoroughly personal and individual statement that reveals a confident, mature and graceful artist who is determined to insert as much of herself into her work as possible, while making sure the ideas remain universal.

At the core of all of Venus’ songs is a boldly feminine look at love, chemistry, loss and hurt. “Sweet Love of Mine,” a lilting love song to her first child, explores motherhood as an antidote to loneliness, fear and darkness. Taking the motherly idea to a very different place is “Woman (Oh Mama),” a romp that channels tribal elements bordering on cliché in service of a seriously amped up sense of personal femininity. The song is also an ode to the universal beauty and power (maybe even superiority) of womankind. “I am a universe wrapped in skin,” she bellows with abandon amidst numerous references to Mother Earth, the moon and cosmic power. Between the inventive but simple production, the completely unrestrained vocal, the provocative video and the passionate Amazonian lyric, this song could serve as a sort of pagan power anthem for a new generation. Somewhere Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and PJ Harvey should be stomping along.

While a particular pallor of pain prevails, these are not hopeless songs.

The bulk of Venus, however, is a slow burn. The journey is one of pain and brokenness, yet also of reconciliation. Williams’ most interesting creative accomplishment here may her ability to maintain a tone of ennui even during the few moments when the clouds part. “Till Forever,” an unabashed love song celebrating physical intimacy “under the covers,” is powerful due to its covenantal nature and, again, as an antidote to brokenness. “We grow stronger,” she intones, “for breaking apart together.” It’s a highly effective, though melancholy, marital make-out song.

While a particular pallor of pain prevails, these are not hopeless songs. “You Loved Me” seems to reference the prodigal son’s perspective in Jesus’ parable. “I tried and I failed and you loved me,” she repeats. The album’s closer, “Welcome Home,” seems to reference the same parable from the perspective of the father. “Come inside from the cold and rest your weary bones,” Williams offers. “You belong, you are loved, you are wanted. You’re not alone. I’ve missed you so. Welcome home.” As pained as the music feels, in fact, the dominant theme seems to be a dogged pursuit of reconciliation and resolution.

In Roman mythology Venus was the goddess of love. She was attributed all of the confusing, wonderful and dangerous characteristics of the universal longing of the human heart. Williams adds her name to a long list of artists referencing this myth as a picture of power, connection and pain. Her graceful suggestion that there is a better day coming, the redemption of Venus as it were, sets her work apart. “I’d love to write a happy song,” Williams sings. “One day I will.”

One day indeed.

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure