Joy Williams’ new record, “Venus,” is a breakup album — or, as Williams calls it, “a break-through album” — but it goes beyond heartache. You can almost hear Williams working through her emotions, dealing with the expectations placed on her specifically and women in general and meditating on what it means to challenge those expectations. It’s about picking up the pieces, reassembling yourself into something familiar but new and then moving along with your life on your terms.
The imagery in some of the songs — the ghostly whispers and raven’s feathers in “Before I Sleep,” for example, and the thorny crowns of the broody, atmospheric “The Dying Kind” — would be right at home on an album from Williams’ now-defunct duo The Civil Wars. Aurally, the strongly syncopated “Venus” is largely a departure from the duo’s old-timey, folksy sound.
Williams says she initially played the songs on the album with an acoustic guitar before her “love of Massive Attack, Annie Lennox, Portishead, Kate Bush and hip-hop” moved her to try out some different production styles. I’m not sure where Portishead fits into the mix, but I can hear a little Annie Lennox and even a very light bit of hip-hop in the production.
“The Dying Kind” in particular kind of sounds like Galadriel left Middle Earth and teamed up with Justin Timberlake to make a record. Which isn’t a coincidence, exactly, as Timberlake introduced Williams to her co-writer and producer Matt Morris and thus left what she calls his “invisible fingerprint” on the record.
In addition to the eerie-but-catchy “Before I Sleep,” I was particularly drawn to “Welcome Home” and “You Loved Me.” “Welcome Home” is an achingly pretty song. Williams has a beautiful, lilting voice, and the song is all strings and lyrics like “come inside from the cold and raise your weary soul” and “you’re wanted, you’re not alone.” “You Loved Me” sounds like a lullaby, but it’s a very melancholy one; “I had all the answers; it was easier than facing the dark.”
Overall, it’s a strong, empowered record. But the album does have a couple of tracks I’m not crazy about. “Not Good Enough” is the record’s most pop-country sounding track, with a little bit of Celine Dion warble thrown in. Neither pop-country nor Celine is my favorite, and it’s my least-favorite song on the record. Likewise, while I appreciate the sentiment behind “Woman (Oh Mama),” I found both the lyrics and the production a bit overdone:
Disclaimer: I participated in the Joy Williams “Venus” album review program as a member of One2One Network. I was provided an album to review but all opinions are my own.