There’s a trend in current pop-culture criticism toward “consumer reviews,” which amount to little more than recitations of a few key details and two or three descriptive phrases, often lifted verbatim from a press kit, to give the “average” reader an idea of whether or not he or she might like to spend his or her hard-earned money on the product. No one wants to read analyses of form or content or broader context; they want a star rating that validates their own tastes. It’s the reason Roger Ebert and Rolling Stone give three stars or better to fully three-quarters of what they review; it’s not that the products in question really merit such praise, it’s that in trying to validate everyone else’s opinions, you can’t really have one of your own. It’s a reductive and ugly line of unthinking, really, but buried in it is the idea that there’s a certain value to critical objectivity. Since any fanboy can set up a website, it’s important to establish some distance, right?
In the interest of doing just that, I’ve waited a full month since the release of the Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way to go on the record as to why it’s a complete failure of an album and as hatefully sold a product as I’ve ever encountered. It’s been deemed an “important” album in the popular press, presumably because it’s one of the first times that a recording artist, in marketing a new record, has done little more than throw a vitriolic, bile-spewing public temper-tantrum and been championed for the bravery of doing so.
But I’ll get to that soon enough. I’ll begin with the last thing that Taking the Long Way is actually about: the music. In looking to make their break from Nashville, the Dixie Chicks teamed up with producer Rick Rubin, the man behind the best country album of the 1990s, Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. On first impression, that seemed like a smart decision, but the release of Cash’s Personal File (serendipitously, on the same day as the Dixie Chicks’ album) and the overall sonic goo of Taking the Long Way cast significant doubt on how well-prepared Rubin actually is to turn a country star into a rock star. Cash pulled it off because he’s Johnny Cash and, as Personal File reveals, he’d already figured out, long before working with Rubin, the right production gimmick to launch the second half of his career. The Dixie Chicks, in contrast, have said that their mantra in recording Taking the Long Way was, “What would Bruce Springsteen do?” To hear Taking the Long Way, it seems that the answer to that question, per the Dixie Chicks and Rubin, is, “Try to sound like Train.”
From their breakthrough in Nashville (and, moreover, from their origins as a cowgirl band performing on street corners in central Texas), what’s always been most striking about the Dixie Chicks is that they’re truly accomplished, first-rate musicians, and they figured out a compelling way to incorporate their skills with traditional country instruments—Martie Maguire on fiddle, her sister Emily Robison on banjo and several others—into a take on modern pop-country that was as distinctive for their actual artistic credibility as it was for their girl-group gimmick and kicking-ass-and-taking-names attitude. With the exception of Natalie Maines’s long-range missile launcher of a voice, which is placed front-and-center on every track, Taking the Long Way robs the Dixie Chicks of everything that made them distinctive, entirely losing the vitality of their sound. As bird-named bands who play hybrids of rock and country music go, they aimed for “Lyin’ Eyes”-era Eagles and came up with “Hole in the World”-era Eagles: drippy adult contemporary pap that’s non-threatening enough that it could play over the closing credits of a Disney cartoon.
As great a singer as Maines might be, that Robison and Maguire are given next to nothing to do for the bulk of the album is one of its most significant flaws. When they do turn up, it’s as Maines’s backup singers (singing campy doo-wop chants on “I Like It” or leading into orchestral swells that eventually drown them out on “Baby Hold On”) or to provide accents, such as Maguire’s don’t-call-it-a-fiddle on “Bitter End.” Bogged down as it is with guest contributors (Bonnie Raitt, Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, Keb’ Mo’, John Mayer, and, of course, Linda Perry), not one of the songs is founded on the fact that the Dixie Chicks are a band. Taking the Long Way could have been recorded by uncredited session musicians without making the Dixie Chicks seem any less involved in its creation. The Wreckers’ Stand Still, Look Pretty is more effective in establishing a sound.
It’s not just Rubin’s production choices that fail, though—it’s the songwriting. Looking at their impressive catalogue of hit singles, it’s telling that there are just two (“You Were Mine” and “Sin Wagon”) on which at least two-thirds of the trio share a writing credit. Their biggest hits were either written by someone else (“Wide Open Spaces,” “There’s Your Trouble,” “Long Time Gone,” “Travelin’ Soldier”) or by one of the Chicks writing with a collaborator (“Ready to Run,” “Without You”). On their first three albums, the Dixie Chicks irrefutably demonstrated that they’re better at choosing material than at writing it as a group. That’s not a knock against them, but an assessment of where, at this juncture in their career, the Dixie Chicks still had some growing room.
Taking the Long Way, in that sense, finds the Dixie Chicks treading water. Too many of the songs lack a melodic hook altogether (“Silent House” and “Baby Hold On” simply let Maines go for whatever high note might strike her fancy, while “Everybody Knows” and “Favorite Year” are interchangeable in their monotony) or take entirely too long to get there (“Easy Silence” drags on forever and ostensible gospel number “I Hope” plays more like a dirge). But for “Bitter End,” a Celtic-leaning toast song that has the album’s one standout melody, “I Like It,” which unfavorably recalls their cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love” from the Runaway Bride soundtrack, and the harder rock of “Lubbock or Leave It,” the songs are of a nearly uniform midtempo shuffle. It’s all so very restrained and so very tasteful and so very safe and so very predictable. Or to mince fewer words, so very conservative.
The lyrics fare little better, with mixed metaphors (“We all rode the wave/Of that crazy parade” on “Bitter End”), clichéd images (“I can change like colors on a wall” on “Everybody Knows”), sloppy internal repetition (the overuse of “I’m mad as hell” on lead single “Not Ready to Make Nice”), non sequiturs (“Sunday morning, heard the preacher say/Thou Shall Not Kill/I don’t wanna hear nothing else/About killing and that it’s God’s will” is the logic-defying opening stanza of “I Hope”), and grade school rhymes (“The words that you said/They still ring in my head,” also from “Bitter End”) marring nearly every song. “I Hope” is the worst, though, with its “It’s okay for us to disagree/We can work it out lovingly” refrain at odds with the remainder of the album’s tone and its laughable, decidedly un-Wu-Tang “for the children” attitude entirely hypocritical unless the Dixie Chicks plan to drop signature songs like “Goodbye Earl,” “Sin Wagon,” and “White Trash Wedding” from their concert set lists. At this point, it wouldn’t be a surprising move, since it could self-serve as yet another nail in the crosses they’ve been hauling on their promotional rounds.