New name, same ethos: The Chicks are back

Wednesday, July 22, 2020 - 7:20pm

NOSELL

Wikimedia Commons

A lot has changed since the last time we heard from The Chicks. They had a different name, different marital statuses and George W. Bush was still the president. The same president who lead singer Natalie Maines claimed she was “ashamed” of in 2003 — immediately sparking the trio’s fall from country music grace. Still, the group’s 2006 release Taking the Long Way offered no apologies for being outspoken. “I’ve paid a price and I’ll keep paying” Maines half-vowed, half-predicted on the aptly titled track “Not Ready to Make Nice.”

Fourteen years later, Gaslighter proves Maines right. In detailing her tumultuous divorce, the album displays the personal costs of a commitment to candor. “My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me up / how messed up is that?” Maines winces on “Sleep at Night.” This kind of unswerving dedication to cataloguing the extent of Maines’s pain is what holds Gaslighter together. And at the same time, it’s what allows The Chicks to deliver the most scathing one-liners of their career. 

“I hope you die peacefully in your sleep / just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me” Maines taunts on “Tights On My Boat.” If there’s one image that will now forever haunt Chicks fans, it’s those horrid tights on her boat — Gaslighter’s recurring motif and the damning evidence of Maines’s ex-husband’s infidelity. Bouncing between jabs and sucker punches — “Will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m done?” — the laid-back but ominous “Tights On My Boat” is a deliciously petty tell-all that contextualizes Gaslighter’s arc. And, knowing that the divorce proceedings were drawn out over the prenup and a “confidentiality clause,” maybe Maines figured it was time for her ex to pay up too — in details.

It’s telling then, that the loneliest moment on the album is a cover. Originally recorded by singer-songwriter Charlotte Lawrence, “Everybody Loves You” anchors Gaslighter in chilling disbelief. The listener gets the sense that even Maines couldn’t quite articulate how betrayed she felt — so she had to use someone else’s words. The song captures Maines’s recognition of a shade of hurt that isn’t found anywhere else on the record — confusion. “Why does everybody love you? / They don’t know enough about you” she sighs. Her delivery is brutal. There’s something special about seeing yourself in a song that frees Maines to be vulnerable.

But what about their new sound? Known — and loved — for Maines’s rich harmonies with sisters Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire alongside a generous helping of banjo and fiddle, The Chicks have enlisted artists to help launch their comeback who would make any country purist groan. Names include producer Jack Antonoff, known for his work on Taylor Swift’s and Lorde’s recent projects, as well as an assortment of pop-oriented songwriters like Julia Michaels and Anne Clark, who is professionally known as St. Vincent. But it works. The slick, sparse production matches the anger that pulses through the album and heightens its biting lyrics. Genre squabbles aside, banjo licks and studio-bred percussion are equally central to etching out Gaslighter’s narrative. 

From the rollicking, finger-pointing title track to the swampy battle cry “March March,” this beat-driven alteration to The Chicks’ signature sound helps keep them steady. Moreover, it’s a teaching tool. In “Julianna Calm Down” The Chicks coach their daughters and nieces through heartbreak. “Just put on, put on, put on your best shoes / and strut the fuck around like you have nothing to lose,” Maines instructs “Harper,” “Eva” and about a dozen other names. What starts slow and somber grows celebratory as the beat pushes the listener to dance.

That’s why, as cheesy as it sounds, Gaslighter is just as much about divorce as it is about empowerment. On “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” for example, Maines’s declaration that she’s going to “go it alone” is layered in harmonies. This draws attention to the fact that while empowerment means gaining autonomy, feeling strength, even in isolating situations like divorce, is rooted in community.

The Chicks translate this sentiment into the political realm. In “March March” Maines proclaims herself “an army of one,” then proceeds to push on many of America’s collective wounds. From shady government dealings (“What the hell happened in Helsinki?”) to climate change (“Ah, cut the shit, you know your city is sinking”), The Chicks prod at the country’s loosening seams. Such explicit, timely call outs don’t feel out of place, however, because they point to personal empowerment and political action being intertwined — things that require the same kind of fury. 

For all the time spent recounting the past, Gaslighter feels invested in the future. A letter to her sons, “Young Man” finds Maines clear-headed and hopeful. “My blues aren’t your blues” she reassures them, referring to the hurt their father caused her. Instead of her determining their path, “it’s up to you” she tells them. And the percussion from before? It all but disappears on this last stretch of songs. The acceptance gained in “Hope It’s Something Good” and “Set Me Free” not only sounds like the morning after a storm, but sonically represents a return to form for The Chicks. 

Seventeen years after The Chicks were effectively banned from country radio, women in the music industry, especially in country music, still have to pay to speak their mind. A few days after Gaslighter’s release, prominent Nashville radio show host Bobby Bones complained that The Chicks had declined to come on his show despite receiving multiple invitations. If he had really listened to the album though, maybe he would have realized that The Chicks are done playing other people’s games — and they want you to stop playing too.