Album Review: The Chicks – Gaslighter

[Columbia; 2020]

The tumultuous story behind The Chicks (fka The Dixie Chicks) is well-known by now, but suffice it to say, they have never been a group to stay quiet or keep opinions to themselves. A trio of women in a male-dominated country music industry, they have seen time and time again how deeply many folks in that scene would prefer that they, as the title of the documentary covering their mid-2000s public backlash puts it, shut up and sing. 

The year that documentary came out – 2006 – was also when The Chicks’ last album came out. The trio has been rather silent for the past 14 years, at least on the studio front. After taking a short hiatus to focus on their families, they toured pretty heavily, and they even wound up recording a track with Beyoncé for her Lemonade album. But now, The Chicks are back, they’ve finally dropped the “Dixie” part of their name (a name they always thought was stupid anyway), and they are ready to show us what they sound like in 2020.

That sound is decidedly less country than the one they left off on. Gaslighter, their eighth album, is slick and poppy, colored in with synths, electronics, and artificial beats. Luckily, there is just enough country left in the formula, with lead singer Natalie Maines refusing to drop her slight twang, and Martie Erwin Maguire and Emily Strayer providing extremely strong violin and banjo work on almost every track, along with gorgeous harmonies. Maines has a particularly strong showing across these 12 tracks, providing mostly passionate, steady vocal performances that never strain for something they can’t do. She knows what she does best, and she does it very well here.

The vast majority of the album’s lyrical content is concerned with the less-than-amicable divorce Maines recently went through. The words spent on this topic range from up-front kiss-offs, to sad ruminations on the past, to concerns about her children in the wake of this rupture. “Young Man” is a particularly touching example of that final point, as Maines expresses her worry for her son, reminding him that he can still be a good person even though his father’s true self has been revealed. 

As for the kiss-offs, there’s a strong handful of those as well, and they tend to be the more upbeat numbers. The title track swoops in on bright group vocals, and proceeds pretty full-steam-ahead from there. “Sleep at Night” is a pretty standard pop fare, with a sassy attitude and slightly trite lyrics. The funniest and most brash is “Tights on My Boat”, where Maines directly states “I hope you die” as she passes off her ex to his mistress. It sticks out a bit from the tracklist with its lyrical snark, but it fits nicely into the narrative of the album. 

These personal tracks are by far the most successful on the album, especially some of the slower cuts like “Julianna Calm Down”, which is an ode to young women everywhere about finding inner strength and not letting the (usually male) forces around them dominate. The closer, “Set Me Free”, is a beautiful plea for freedom, asking her ex to let her go from the battlegrounds of their divorce (some details of which have been made public, such as his attempts at claiming the lyrics on this album violate an NDA). 

However, the occasional lapses into politics are less successful. In an attempt to match the current landscape a bit, The Chicks felt it right to mix in a little political bite, which is of course nothing terribly new to them. “March March” is the clearest example of this, with slightly cringe-inducing lyrics, and a spare beep and drum instrumental. It’s well-intentioned, of course, but it comes off a little flaccid. Luckily, this song ends in a two-minute instrumental climax that marks one of the best moments on the album – it’s just too bad it’s stuck onto the back half of such a flawed song.

Fortunately, most of Gaslighter veers away from this type of secondhand embarrassment. When Maines sticks to ruminating on her own story, the album coheres into something really pleasant. It is full of hooks, strong swaying ballads, and a real synergy between the group and their collaborators. It might seem a little odd that The Chicks brought on Jack Antonoff as the lead producer, but then he is sort of working with everyone these days, and his influence usually results in a slick but colorful energy.

This is certainly the poppiest the band has ever sounded, and the album has a handful of trite or overly-cheesy moments, but these are easy to overlook when it all sounds this good, and when so many of Maines’ lyrics are this precise and honest. The Chicks sound rejuvenated, refreshed, and emboldened, and ready to usher their sound into a new era. And with their singing and playing as strong as this, the trio makes it clear that they are up to the task.