There’s compelling data, generated largely by the work of Dr. Jada Watson of the University of Ottowa, that draws a clear correlation between the blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks from country radio and the immediate and striking downturn in airplay for all women on that format. The statistics are dire and indefensible. Though program directors and radio consultants will deny, deny, deny, there’s evidence that the industry made a purposeful choice to punish all female artists for the Dixie Chicks’s perceived crimes.
So, in 2020, country music really and truly needs a comeback from the Dixie Chicks, an album that will allow one of the genre’s all-time greatest acts to stage a triumphant return and redress the industry’s injustices over the last decade. But Gaslighter, the band’s first album in 14 years, isn’t it. Instead, it’s a defiant act of rebranding: The Dixie Chicks are now known simply as the Chicks—a not-insignificant change that speaks to both the social power of language and to the trio’s stated intent to “meet this moment” in our nation’s history.
Sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer figure even less prominently on Gaslighter than they did on the band’s last album, 2006’s Taking the Long Way, and that’s also a not-insignificant development. By teaming up with producer Jack Antonoff, the group has made a decisive transition into a pop act. It’s easy to mourn the sound that defined the band, but to reject the album out of hand for its pop aesthetics is to deny them their own agency as artists.
Gaslighter emerges as a fascinating, messy album that’s steeped in personal and political rage. Divorce is hardly unusual subject matter in pop and country music, but artists who record “divorce albums” often struggle with the notion that they should aspire to making their story universally accessible to listeners. Natalie Maines makes no such mistake in her songwriting here. What elevates Gaslighter above thematically similar albums is the specificity of her unflinching detail as she recounts her ongoing legal battles with ex-husband Adrian Pasdar.
On “Sleep at Night,” Maines retells the story of how Pasdar brought his mistress backstage at a concert to introduce her as a fan of the band. Maines is fully in control of her narrative voice when she sings on the track: “My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me/How messed up is that?/It’s so insane that I have to laugh/But then I think about our two boys trying to become men/There’s nothing funny about that.” Later, on “Set You Free,” the soaring ballad that closes Gaslighter, she pleads, “Decency would be to sign and release me,” referencing the still-festering terms of a contract dispute.
On the tracks that explicitly relate to her divorce, which is a full three-quarters of the album, Maines dispenses with the idea of a narrative remove. She sings in first person, and the details she’s chosen to share are autobiographical, albeit presenting only her perspective. At times, that makes standout songs like “Hope It’s Something Good” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” feel, at the very least, like voyeurism. While it’s always a critical dead-end to assume that first-person narrators are stand-ins for a singer, Maines actually invites that reading: On “Gaslighter,” when she sings, “Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat,” it’s a marvel of bitterness. That the album later includes a song with the title “Tights on My Boat,” though, lessens the mystique or possibility for interpretation or engagement.
That would be more of an issue if the songs weren’t so well-constructed and engagingly performed. But that’s exactly what makes Gaslighter superior to its predecessor. As part of my clinical work, I’ve testified as a witness in some truly nasty divorce cases, and I’ve never once thought to set court transcripts to a percussive four-four stomp or some Lorde-style EDM, but damned if it doesn’t work for the Chicks here. “Gaslighter” and the extraordinary “March March” boast distinctive lyrical hooks, while “For Her” and “Julianna Calm Down” feature real dynamic ranges that give the tracks a sense of movement and depth. Antonoff’s production choices truly draw into sharp relief Rick Rubin’s conservativism at the helm of Taking the Long Way.
While the album sounds current for 2020, there are a handful of moments that suggest how much more strongly Antonoff could have leaned into the Chicks’s previous style. On “For Her,” Antonoff layers one of Strayer’s finger-plucked banjo figures into an arrangement that explodes into a sing-along gospel chorus, while Maguire’s fiddle adds a jarring, ominous tone to the instrumental outro of “March March.” When working with a vocalist as powerful as Maines, the impulse to foreground her performances makes sense—and it’s worth noting that “For Her,” “Julianna Calm Down,” and “Set Me Free” are among the finest performances of her career. But the album gives the impression that Antonoff wasn’t sure how to engage fully with Maguire and Strayer’s exemplary skills with traditional acoustic instruments.
By incorporating country signifiers into what is otherwise a terrific, of-the-moment pop album, Antonoff and the Chicks could have come up with a style that’s even more progressive, akin to the production on Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour. If nothing else, that highlights how the Chicks still have room to grow, either with or without Antonoff, as they move into this new phase of their career. Gaslighter may not have been the album that country music needed, but it’s clearly the one that the Chicks needed to make.