The Chicks Speak Truth to Power Once Again on 'Gaslighter'

The band formerly known as the Dixie Chicks cannot catch a break. Nearly two decades after the George Bush roast heard ‘round the world, and the Chicks’ subsequent exile from Nashville, the bestselling Texas trio still have a bone to pick on Gaslighter, the group’s first studio release in nearly 15 years and their most pop-sounding record to date. 

Still, they’re ready to speak the thorny truth once more. This time, the conflict is coming from inside the house: Much of Gaslighter is centered on Natalie Maines’ acrimonious divorce from her longtime husband, Heroes actor Adrian Pasdar, which was only finalized this past December. The resulting album is uneven and heartfelt, polished in its production and yet at times so brutally honest that Pasdar tried to block its release based on a confidentiality clause in his and Maines’ prenup. Its emotions feel immediate, as though the ink were still drying on the page. When Maines sings, “After so long, I learned to hold my tongue/And now that you’re done, I get to write this song,” on “Hope It’s Something Good,” it’s not a triumph so much as a weary sigh of relief.

For longtime fans of the Chicks, the narrative surrounding Gaslighter – its staging as a “comeback” album, its explosive lead single – might feel like deja vu. The LP arrives after 2006’s Taking the Long Way, a dark, Rick Rubin-produced album inspired by the band’s topple from country royalty after Maines’ criticism of Bush and the Iraq War. It was a gamble that paid off big time – the Chicks went on to win an astonishing five Grammys for Taking the Long Way and its vitriolic centerpiece, “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Justice, it appeared, had been served; the Sin Wagon would ride again.

But, as it does, life got complicated. In the coming years, the three women chose raising their young children over an exhaustive touring schedule. Maines moved her family from Texas to Los Angeles for Pasdar’s acting career. The group’s founding sisters, Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire, formed a traditionalist side project as a duo; Maines put out a solo album, covering Pink Floyd and Jeff Buckley. A 2016-2017 reunion tour came with a new, rockier sound from the trio, but that, too, wasn’t a given – after the catharsis of Taking the Long Way, the Chicks were left with no clear direction forward. Their controversy paved the way for a new generation of outspoken women – Maren Morris, Margo Price, Mickey Guyton – to help rectify country music’s past sins, but for their own career, the band’s reputation as outcasts proved to be a mixed blessing.

So, they’ve doubled down on pop. Jack Antonoff, producer extraordinaire for some of this generation’s leading pop auteurs (Taylor Swift, Lorde, Lana Del Rey), is the band’s main collaborator here, along with a cadre of other industry hitmakers like Julia Michaels, Teddy Geiger, Ian Kirkpatrick. The 12 tracks on Gaslighter fall into easy, radio-friendly categories: empowerment anthem, cheeky ukulele kiss-off, minimalist protest song. Coupled with a long-overdue drop of the “Dixie” from their name, the arrangement dissolves most of the group’s lingering connections to their street-corner bluegrass origins. Maguire’s fiddle sounds more like a straight violin; Strayer’s banjo has lost a bit of its twang. But while the sound may be a bit sanitized, the content isn’t. Maines takes a cue from Beyoncé – with whom the group famously shared the stage at the 2016 CMAs, to the outrage of the Nashville old guard –  and melds together vengeance with vulnerability, airing out her domestic laundry with swagger and more than a hint of Lemonade’s self-righteousness: “Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat.”

None of the Chicks are strangers to divorce – they’ve had five between the three of them, and their marriages’ origins are inextricably tied to the band itself. (Maines met Pasdar at Strayer’s wedding to Charlie Robison; Maguire met her former husband at the wedding for Maines’ sister.) But much of the content on Gaslighter is Maines’ story to tell, in excruciating detail. “My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me up/How messed up is that,” she laughs on “Sleep at Night,” then stops herself short, remembering that her two boys are trying to grow up in the midst of the chaos. If Gaslighter does anything right, it’s this peppering of wry (and often, very petty) humor amidst the stop-and-go pain and frustration that accompanies a fragmented relationship. The mix is imperfect, but then again, so is divorce. On “Everybody Loves You,” Maines lays bare that whiplash confusion and anguish. “It’s my body, and it hates you/Why does everybody love you,” she asks, bewildered. “Young Man” is a letter to her own son, praying that she hasn’t let him down through her own feelings of betrayal.

In contrast to its lyrics, the production on Gaslighter is widespread and universal, designed to fit seamlessly into contemporary pop. The Chicks have had little interest in country radio for years – who could blame them? – and it’s no accident that they’re working with the guy who assisted Taylor Swift, a Chicks acolyte herself, in making the same genre transition. The album’s fusion of drum machines and fiddles has its high points (the outro to “March March”), though at its worst, Gaslighter falls back on the laziest of the genre’s current tropes: tepid ballads, acoustic guitar strums with plastic textures, those soaring “whoa-oa”’s and “whoo-oo”’s in the background. The campfire tune “Tights on My Boat,” meant as a “gotcha!” moment towards Maines’ ex, is jaw-dropping in its specificity (that taxes line!), but  juvenile at points: “You can tell that girl that she can have you right now,” Maines sneers, while an imaginary audience whoops and guffaws, like her barbs aren’t good enough on their own. It’s a disappointing misfire, coming from a band that is normally at the top of their game when fusing that Southern, “bless your heart” venom with a punk rock attitude.

No surprise that the standouts on the record are when you can hear all three Chicks working in harmony, literally and figuratively. “Texas Man,” a spicier sequel to “Cowboy Take Me Away,” is the only time Gaslighter feels genuinely fun, as the band repurposes electric guitar and rock percussion to create a hoedown vibe, mirroring the manic whirl of new romance. (The way Maines intones, “I’m a little bit unraveled,” with just a touch of faltering, is incredible.) “Hope It’s Something Good” takes on a dream-pop quality with its gorgeous vocal lilts and hazy pedal steel from Lloyd Maines. Meanwhile, Gaslighter’s title track is still catchy and provocative as ever, and works as a dig at Trump without ever having to announce itself as such. 

Even with its flaws, Gaslighter still carries the weight of the Chicks’ uncertain future as a band. On “Set Me Free,” the album’s understated closing number, Maines belts, “Decency/Would be for you to sign and release me,” but the subtext points to more than just her ex-husband. Gaslighter will be the Chicks’ final album on their two-decade-long, seven-album contract with Sony, a label they once sued for $4.1 million over withheld royalties. Maines has stated that before her divorce, that last LP was just going to be a covers record. “Real easy, turn it in, get the money, be free agents,” she explained. “But then my relationship fell apart, and I had a lot to say.”

It makes sense, then, that while the Chicks have always stood for liberation and speaking truth to power, Gaslighter conveys a push towards a calmer sort of freedom. “I can see a wildfire coming/Burnin’ the world that I know,” Maines sings on “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” “Watch me, watch me outrun it/Take what I need and go/Go it alone.” It suggests that the band is ready to escape the madness and settle down, or at least settle in, to more languid careers at their own pace. Maybe this time, they’ll finally outpace the flames.

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