Country music is built on dreams of freedom – open roads, blue skies, everlasting love. The Dixie Chicks, though, took it all a step further. Over an extraordinary eight years from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, the three-piece, comprising Natalie Maines and sisters Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire, took country’s foundations and sketched upon them a blueprint for a world defined by female agency and liberation. It was a vivid image – full of evocative songs about women finding freedom from staid family structures (“Wide Open Spaces”), abusive relationships (“Goodbye Earl”) and the conservative strictures of country music itself (“Not Ready to Make Nice”).
Broadly, country is known for its embrace of tradition and familiarity. The Dixie Chicks, feeling the warmth of third-wave feminism’s fire, threw fantasies of a world steeped in feminine heterogeneity in the establishment’s face – becoming the best-selling female group in America in the process. Even in the band’s darkest moments – not least when they were blacklisted by country radio and ultra-conservative fans over Maines’ criticism of America’s occupation of Iraq – the trio couldn’t help but see freedom potential: “It’s … opened the door for us to do anything musically that we want to do now without feeling any pressures that we have to please,” Maines said at the time, “because we don’t really have anyone to answer to.”
The record born of that new-found freedom, 2006’s Taking the Long Way, would be the Dixie Chicks’ last.
Aside from the occasional reunion tour or high-profile collaboration – the band appeared on songs with Beyoncé and Taylor Swift in 2016 and 2019, respectively – Maines, Strayer and Maguire have remained quiet while the band was on hiatus.
In their wake, the feminist ideals they were once crucified for became commonplace in pop music and sounds they helped bring to the mainstream were pushed to the top of the charts and the upper echelons of indie music. The stage, in other words, was set for the Dixie Chicks’ return: for Maines, Strayer and Maguire to drop a triumphant and flamboyantly political album into an arena they shaped profoundly and a climate that could surely use their reckless knack for speaking truth to power.
Gaslighter, released on July 17, is not that album.
Instead, it is an intense and often overwhelming bloodletting, a record more lyrically and musically personal than anything the band – now known as The Chicks, a change made in light of the Black Lives Matter movement that removes reference to the Confederacy from the band’s name – has ever released.
Built largely around Maines’ messy split from a cheating ex – who took the singer to court in an attempt to bar the record from release, citing a prenuptial confidentiality clause – Gaslighter is not a continuation of The Chicks’ crusade to allow women to speak their truth in the music industry without qualification; rather, it is the product of that project.
Gone are the rebellious daughters – these women are now matriarchs in their own right. Gaslighter sees Maines, Strayer and Maguire luxuriating in the world they helped build, exhaling after 20 years of tension. Eschewing the glass-half-full resilience of their early records in favour of unbridled, complex pain, the album finds space for The Chicks to be wounded without reservation. “You’re only as sick as your secrets, so I’m telling everything,” Maines sings early on.
“Telling everything” is right. From Gaslighter’s opening song, its title track and lead single, The Chicks are in scorching and unprecedented form, Maines’ words tumbling fast and freely: “Gaslighter, you broke me / You’re sorry, but where’s my apology?” she demands on the track’s almost uncomfortably vengeful chorus. The bridge of “Gaslighter” contains a handful of references to lyrics from the band’s back catalogue, while its verses maintain a throttling specificity with idiosyncratic references to Maines’ own life: “Boy, I know exactly what you did on my boat.”
Despite the years away, Maines’ voice remains a peerless instrument, both cragless and overwhelmingly expressive. Strayer and Maguire display enviable flexibility in their ability to remould their country-through-and-through instruments – the banjo and the fiddle – into something fit for modern pop. The trio created Gaslighter alongside pop producer du jour Jack Antonoff, a key collaborator of Taylor Swift, Lorde, and Lana Del Rey, and small, modernist touches – a rhythmic, rap-indebted cadence here, a touch of distortion there – add stylish flair to the band’s generally traditionalist sound.
Earlier Chicks songs contain references to abject sobs or emotional bankruptcy, no doubt, but they always played with the dignified air of hindsight. Not here: “Gaslighter” is so, so sad. It is a powerful statement of irrevocable upset that represents an inversion of the band’s superlative cover of Fleetwood Mac’s most generous of break-up ballads, “Landslide”. The Maines of “Gaslighter” is not capable of solemn reflection. She is angry, and mortally wounded. This is a song about what sometimes comes after one claims the freedom The Chicks always aspired to, a missive heavy with the understanding that life cannot be so easily drawn into sections labelled “good” and “bad”.
The white-hot fury of “Gaslighter” coats the rest of the record like tar.
In Maines’ divorce, Gaslighter finds a more compelling through-line than any other album in the band’s career. It balances true emotional weight with a salacious listenability, like a copy of Us Weekly in 4/4. Maines rises to the occasions, filling her lyrics with detail: “My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me up, how messed up is that?” she muses on “Sleep at Night”. “Julianna Calm Down” is a song of reassurance and empowerment addressed to Strayer’s and Maguire’s daughters. On the post-break-up whirlwind “Texas Man”, Maines admits it has been “way too long since somebody’s body kept me up all night”. Gaslighter is filled with strange and messy moments such as these, miles removed from the empowering platitudes that filled their earlier records.
Gaslighter is, perhaps inevitably due to Antonoff’s presence, the most specifically pop-indebted record The Chicks have made. It’s an experiment with varying degrees of success. On the whole, the vocal delivery on Gaslighter is wordy and rhythmic. This works on, say, “Gaslighter” or “Julianna Calm Down” – where Maines conjures the lyrics and intensity to pull it off – but it fails entirely on “March March”, where the Parkland school shooting is invoked to make a sweeping point about gun control. In truth, the purest signifiers of pop on Gaslighter dampen an otherwise bracing record: a “whoa-oh-oh” chorus on “Sleep at Night” rids the song of its carefully cultivated subtlety; the bland, bluesy stomper “For Her” comes across as the ham-fisted cousin of the more resonant “Julianna”.
This album is so brightly coloured, so pop-focused, that its deeper concerns may be concealed, initially. But they are there, for those willing to listen. The Chicks display a unique obsession with the circularity of time on Gaslighter – how it can speed for some and slow for others, stretching heartbreak into an eternity.
The album’s meditative second half exists in a state of tear-streaked inertia, subsumed in a mist of friends’ weddings and comings-of-age: “Twenty years of hanging on, now it all adds up to nothing,” Maines sings on “Hope It’s Something Good”. The singer is a shell of her former self here, broken on the basest level. Spare and humid, the song threatens to buckle under the weight of its slide guitar, creaking like a rotting old house; it is plainly one of the most beautiful songs The Chicks have recorded.
Gaslighter could have been a fiery liberal polemic. That it turned out to be a strange, warm exhale renders the album infinitely more moving and unexpected. The freedoms The Chicks fought for in their early days were always quiet and intimate things – which was, and is, an intrinsic part of their appeal. “I’m a little bit unravelled,” Maines sings early in Gaslighter. She’s alluding to the weathering effects of time, the pains of dating at a certain age. But she clearly realises the beauty of the image: unravelling is its own kind of freedom, too.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 18, 2020 as "Chicks and stones".
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