Joy Williams Invites Us To Her 'Front Porch'

Apr 25, 2019
Originally published on May 3, 2019 11:10 am

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As austerely down-to-earth as the modal melodies of Appalachian folk music can sound, they can also convey profound pining. "The tenderness of a folk song does not arise only from nostalgia about how wonderful everything is back home," the feminist theologian Wendy Farley once wrote. "Whatever the particularities from which this nostalgic longing arises, it continues to wound our hearts because it is also nostalgia for something no one has ever experienced." In handed-down tunes, she recognized "desire's refusal to accept the limitations of life."

Joy Williams claims no particular ties to a vernacular tradition, but she's found some of the haunting qualities of those melodies suited to the language of longing she speaks. It took an often ominous and occasionally apocalyptic form in The Civil Wars, the singing and songwriting duo she had with John Paul White in the midst of the late-2000s boom in popular Americana; performing together, they were like magnetized yet repellant forces of light and darkness. After their turbulent parting of ways, Williams took a solo excursion into synthy, sensual pop. She's framed Front Porch as her return home — to a stripped-down, acoustic palette, this time produced by Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids (a wise choice); to Nashville, the Southern, music-making city where she's spent most of her professional life following a coastal California youth — but it's also an inquiry into the very meaning of home, and the place it can occupy between abiding in gratitude and straining toward desire.

The dozen-song set opens with the distant mountain echoes of "Canary," in which Williams deploys a bird-in-a-coal-mine image as a metaphor for a resilient voice enduring an inhospitable environment. Anthony da Costa's flat-picked guitar and John Mailander's fiddle slowly escalate in their churning intensity and Russ Pahl's steel guitar lines materialize like ghosts. She's plaintive and wholly present in her singing, and builds toward bell-like, sustained notes. Having cut her teeth on demonstrative pop gestures (as a young star in the contemporary Christian world), she favors melodramatic arrangements of sparse instrumentation. During "When Creation Was Young," a grand declaration of lasting devotion and the track that comes the closest to bluegrass, she makes ample, artful use of crescendos, snugly shadowed here and elsewhere by da Costa's downy harmonies.

Given a less delicate reading, "When Does a Heart Move On" could be a power ballad. Williams' subtle, rueful shading is front and center. "We both know that you're not coming home," she sings low, then repeats the line an octave higher, gusting from a somber tone to an anguished one. The rapid disintegration of a partnership has made her protagonist feel displaced beneath her own roof. It's almost the opposite situation in the folk-soul ballad "No Place Like You;" she fixates on the grounding presence of a lover who's away. She summons a bluesy rasp sparingly, but for much of the song her delivery is breathy and held-close, which makes it feel like singer-songwriter confession.

For Williams, there's a balance to be struck between theatrical and intimate expression, and embracing warmth and simplicity as an approach — a choice underscored by the front porch setting she's imagined for these songs (see: the title track's invitation to come by and sit a spell) — doesn't require abandoning poise and polish.

During "Look How Far We've Come," da Costa's playing and singing is her only accompaniment. With the lyrics' call to persevere in this life even while hoping for spiritual rest in the next, the song has elements of old-time gospel, as does "All I Need." Williams ends each chorus of the latter with lines that come off as both prayer for and affirmation of contentment from a person of sometimes faltering faith: "I may not have everything I want, but I got all I need."

Williams' most moving measurement of the arc of longing of comes during "The Trouble With Wanting." "The trouble with wanting is I want you," she protests with each chorus, first repeating the phrase with melancholy resignation, then buoyed by the power of the urge, before half-despairing, "And I want you all the time." That's emotional truth called up from a deep place.

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