Fourteen years since their last album, and 17 since they were effectively shut out from the country music industry, The Chicks (formerly known as The Dixie Chicks) have finally released new music – and it is as flawless as the wait has been torturously long.
Gaslighter, an album that stays true to their trademark sound and yet also sees them explore the realm of pop more than ever before, is one of the strongest records released this year and one of their strongest to date. The best-selling US female group have reminded us, in twelve stunning but equally heart-breaking songs, why their presence has been so sorely missed.
The Chicks have always had a reputation for being unapologetically outspoken and bold. At a London show in 2003, lead vocalist Natalie Maines transformed the future of the band in just a few quick seconds when she criticised fellow Texan George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, saying they were “ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” Immediate backlash followed – country radio refused to play their music, with some stations providing bins for fans to throw away CDs, and the trio faced countless death threats. Their comeback three years later, featuring the defiant single ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’, won five Grammys. More recently, Maines has taken to social media to openly accuse Trump of psychological manipulation.
In comparison with the force of this album, however, these instances feel mild at best. Gaslighter is brutally honest, with much of the material concerning Maines’ recent protracted (see: bitter and ugly) divorce, one so messy her ex-husband asked a court to block the record’s lyrics. It’s easy to understand why. He does not escape unscathed by any means: “You’re only as sick as your secrets / So I’m telling everything” (‘Sleep at Night’); “After so long, I learned to hold my tongue / And now that you’re done, I get to write this song” (‘Hope It’s Something Good’). For 47 brief minutes, Maines is in control of the narrative and refuses to hold back.
It’s hard not to find the intensity and specificity of Gaslighter’s lyrics staggering. They leave very little to the imagination, uncovering song by song, line by line, the details of her relationship’s deterioration. From the opening title track’s searing “Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat” to the aptly named ‘Tights On My Boat’, details of an affair which ruined a twenty-year long marriage are slowly revealed, like cards of a hand. And it’s clear that Maines is holding all the aces. They range from the devastating – we learn that she met her then-husband’s girlfriend, a ‘fan’, backstage at the Hollywood Bowl and joked, unknowingly, that “you can love me as long as you don’t love my man” – to the painfully wry, with the biting “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I am done?” Each crushing new revelation is richly fierce and unafraid – thank God the judge ruled in Maines’ favour.
Yet its fiery anthems would lose their impact were they not balanced by the record’s quieter numbers. The underlying theme of Gaslighter is one of suffering and loss – one moment taking the form of white-hot rage, relentless rapids of emotion; the next, the more withdrawn, still waters of self-reflection and contemplation. As transfixing as Maines’ incendiary anger can be, the gradual progressions and swelling choruses of slow-burners like ‘Hope It’s Something Good’ and ‘Set Me Free’ are just as enchanting. Tracks like these, delicately restrained and with hints of their bluegrass roots, are where the Chicks we know and love truly shine. With sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer falling back on their classic fiddle and banjo, the heartbreak and hurt stand tall on their own without being washed away by overly polished production. As Maines’ voice wavers in moments of broken emotion, the three-part harmonies achieved, so characteristic of the Chicks, provide support, sweeping you away in the captivating rise and fall of her distinctive voice. The trio unflinchingly reveal to us their most raw and authentic side yet.
What perfects the record is how intentional its composition feels. This is a rare example of an album with no filler tracks – each song is made better by the last and plays an integral role in the story listeners are told. It’s a story of frustration and loneliness, of resentment caving into grief, of what it feels like to be betrayed by everything you once depended on for safety and protection. It’s a story not only about a marriage falling apart, but more universally about the inevitable trials and tribulations of life. Speaking to their ex-husbands, their children, and even their younger selves, the Chicks take us by the hand and lead us through a world filled with pain. They reassure but also prepare us for the forest fires we will not be able to outrun.
Despite its sombre message, Gaslighter is a celebration of the complexity of life, and especially of being a woman. Being sad and being angry aren’t mutually exclusive, they tell us. It’s that defiance, that refusal to distil hardships into a singular emotion, easy to cope with and pretty to look at, that makes the Chicks so compelling. Pain, in whatever form it takes, is an inherently human experience – callously labelling it unfeminine is to ignore this. The record instead chooses to revel in its beauty, ugly as it may feel. Women should get to have fun and be romantic, but should also get to be sorrowful and angry at the same time. The album unpacks this intricacy: poignant and aching at its core, but simultaneously indignant and cautiously hopeful. In a year of chaotic emotion, Gaslighter has come at a time when it is needed most.
With their latest release, The Chicks have returned resilient and vulnerable as ever. They may have tweaked their sound, but their heart has been preserved. Loving yet merciless, spellbinding yet uncompromisingly ferocious, this is The Chicks at their very best. It would be difficult to deny the album’s appeal to anybody, whether long-time Chicks fan or complete newcomer, whether angry or heartbroken or somewhere in between.