Album Review: The Chicks, Gaslighter

The Chicks

Gaslighter

With Gaslighter, the Chicks take complete artistic control and fully reclaim their own narrative.  The result is their most essential album to date, a collection that fully showcases the breadth and scope of their skills as singers, writers, and musicians. 

For the first time, the Chicks serve as both the primary songwriters and the co-producers of an album.  This allows them to build its sound around the lyrical content that they have crafted.  The twelve songs on Gaslighter chart the destruction and reassembly of their personal lives, and this is perfectly mirrored in the musicality of Gaslighter, which has the Chicks deconstructing the core elements of their sound and building something entirely new with those familiar components.   

Turning to the songwriting first, it cannot be overstated how intimate and exposed the lyrics are on Gaslighter.  Whereas Taking the Long Way was written during a period of their lives where home and family provided a refuge from the turmoil in their professional lives, Gaslighter documents the dissolution of two long marriages, both of which involved children. That last detail proves crucial, and it is pivotal to the album’s narrative thread.  Gaslighter is a journey through the aftermath of a marriage ended by betrayal. It documents how wives and mothers process their grief, rediscover their own worth, and ensure that their children learn the right lessons from the painful experiences that they have endured.

The dopamine rush of “Gaslighter” opens the album, with the Chicks’ legendary three-part harmonies delivering judgment and solidarity in one fell swoop.  The central accusation of “boy you know exactly what you did on my boat” draws blood, but it’s the more consequential observation is that the cad is “repeating all of the mistakes of your father” that informs the rest of the album.  There’s a humanity to that line that undercuts the score-settling, which keeps the personal details shared from spilling over to gratuitousness. 

“Sleep at Night” further demonstrates this balancing act.  Emily Stayer plays her banjo like a bass line, creating an undercurrent of tension as Maines alternates between indignant anger (“My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me up, how messed up is that? It’s so insane that I have to laugh”) and heartbreaking despair for her children (“But then I think about our two boys trying to become men. There’s nothing funny about that.”)  As she wonders aloud, “How do you sleep at night?,” it’s clear her disbelief isn’t just how could he do this to her, but also how could he do this to their children.  

“Texas Man” is a thematic follow-up to “Cowboy Take Me Away,”  and it is where the Chicks reclaiming their own narrative really kicks in. Their signature hit used wistful fiddle and banjo to craft the fantasy of a cowboy whisking a young woman away to the great outdoors and making her idealized notion of romance into a reality.   “Texas Man” uses the same instrumentation to invoke weariness and realistic expectations, as Maines signals her readiness for a man who’s “got the strength I do.”  She still wants the cowboy, but he’s got to have the strength she does and be willing to relocate to California, where he will treat her as an equal, value her mind over her body, and still deliver that “good kind of keeping me up all night.”  With twenty years of wisdom under their belt, the Chicks are keenly aware that this Texas man who will treat them this way is just as much a fantasy as the Cowboy they fantasized about in their younger days.

 

There’s only one cover on the album, but it fits in so seamlessly they might as well have written it.  “Everybody Loves You” captures all of the contradictions going on internally as a deep betrayal is being processed, but hasn’t been revealed to anyone outside of the disintegrating relationship.  Maines gives a tour de force vocal performance as her own body violates her, feeling love when she wants to hate, feeling hate when she wants to forgive.  “It’s my body,” she repeatedly declares, but it’s betraying her just as much as her husband did.  This is the first track where the Chicks go pure country, and they still do it better than anybody else.  Martie Maguire is as mournful on the fiddle as Maines is at the mic, and the palpable hurt brings the album to its lowest and most vulnerable point.  

It is also the album’s turning point, as “For Her” begins a four song arc where self-worth is reclaimed and the post-breakup reintroduction to the self occurs.  The production slowly builds as Maines sings about what makes her her, reminding herself of who she was when her identity was as an individual and not part of a set.  “Wish I could go back and tell my younger self, you’re a fighter, you just don’t know it yet.”  She’s speaking to that young girl, as she also speaks to the next generation of girls: “It takes a lot of hard work to get a whole lot stronger.” As the song builds to its revival style climax, the Chicks repeat, “Stand up. Show up. Stand up. Show love. For her. For her.” 

The Chicks were always accidental political figures, with their only real motivation being a better world for their children to inherit.  So it’s fitting that the album’s only political statement is in that vein, with “March March” reasserting their right to express their political views, even if doing so feels futile.   They’ve grown a bit cynical with time, twice calling out duplicity with a biting, “Cut the shit…you know you’re not going to the gun range…you know your city is sinking.” But they find hope through putting their faith in the next generation to fix what we have failed to: “Standing with Emma and our sons and daughters. Watchin’ our youth have to solve our problems. I follow them so who’s coming with me?” 

“March March” is a standout showcase for Maguire and Strayer’s instrumentation, as they take traditional country instruments and express their pain and righteous anger through them in a way more commonly associated with the blues than with country music. 

The Chicks then move into the album’s centerpiece, “My Best Friend’s Weddings,” which uses a friend’s first and second weddings to frame their own journey to being ready to love again.  With gorgeous harmonies befitting a church ceremony, Maines recounts meeting her future husband at that first wedding. The shock and grief that colored the album’s earlier tracks has now faded, and she’s looking at him – and herself – with a new, hard-earned clarity:  “You set off fireworks that evening, with a flicker of untruth..jump twenty years, lookin’ back in retrospect.  I was never safe, never safe, still not safe…you’d torch me any chance you get.”

The album’s production perfectly mirrors the sentiment of the chorus, especially on this song: “I see a wildfire comin’, burnin’ the world that I’ve known. Watch me, watch me outrun it. Take what I need and go.”  The Chicks weave in their distinctive banjo and fiddle, but they do it against a sparse pop landscape, with programmed percussion playing underneath them. It’s a sonic realization of what the lyric asserts, as they take their definitive sound to new places. They demonstrate that they can leave the limitations of conventional country music behind them, while still retaining ownership over their signature sounds.  

“My Best Friend’s Weddings” is the album’s moment of rebirth.  So when Maines sings that “I realized that I prefer my own company to yours anytime” and confidently sings she’s ready to “go it alone,” it sets up “Tights On My Boat” in an unexpected way. Lyrically, it would be easy to dismiss the latter song as bitter and even a bit mean-spirited. “I hope you die peacefully in your sleep.  Just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me.  I hope that when you think of me you can’t breathe.”

But “Tights On My Boat” is one of the lightest moments on the album, and another great example of how the Chicks writing, arranging, and co-producing everything on Gaslighter creates deeper layers of meaning.  The arrangement is breezy and casual, with Maines using a sing-song voice as she accompanies herself on the ukulele.  As cutting as the words are on paper, the delivery of the song makes it clear that she’s already moved past this guy.  When she says, “You can tell the girl who left her tights on my boat that she can have you now,” it’s sung without a hint of anger or regret.  She’s done. She’s moved on. The contrast with how she angrily spat, “Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat” on the album opener makes the second reference to that incident, which could’ve been redundant, a mark of her growth and healing since the betrayal first came to light.

This frees her up to tackle that crucial “Gaslighter lyric” about “repeating the mistakes of your father.”  Her own pain drawn, quartered, and dealt with, it’s time to deal with the impact that the divorce has had on the children.  Now’s as good as any time to give a reminder that two Chicks went through a breakup since their last album, and that both of their experiences inform all of this album.

The pairing of “Julianna Calm Down” and “Young Man” packs as much of an emotional punch as anything I’ve ever heard on any album by any artist, even though I can’t think of any artist that ever attempted to communicate what is specifically communicated here.  The Chicks address two separate audiences, splitting up the girls and the boys to give each group a tailored message that is informed by their own pain and heartache, but is really about breaking the cycle. They don’t want to see them “repeating all of the mistakes of your father,” or mother, for that matter.   

With the girls up first, Maines opens “Julianna Calm Down” in a loving, but firm voice.  “You know he’s about to leave, but don’t panic. Don’t give him the satisfaction that you can’t handle it. Breathe. It’ll be okay.”  To prepare these girls for the men that will inevitably hurt them, they go full “fake it ‘till you make it,” acknowledging that they will be hurting inside, but that their power lies in denying men the opportunity to have power over them through abuse and mistreatment.

The production choices here are nothing short of brilliant, especially coupled with the track that follows.  On “Julianna Calm Down,” the fiddle and banjo are there to represent the pain and hurt that the girls are feeling. As the track progresses, an electric piano gets louder and louder, until it is drowning out the banjo and fiddle.  This matches perfectly with the lyric, with the instrument of artifice providing the facade of confidence that masks the true feelings.  Faking it until they make it, the track ends with that solitary banjo, but it now sounds joyful in its final notes, as the false front is no longer needed.  The foreshadowed “It’ll be okay” has come to pass.

The boys need an entirely different message, with an entirely different delivery. Singing in a higher register that recalls how a mother speaks to her children when they are quite young, Maines recalls, “I had no words for you that Saturday, as we both watched our entire worlds change. Your hero fell just as you came of age.”  

“Young Man” is all about acknowledging her son’s pain and giving him permission to feel.  She creates a space for him to be vulnerable, while also releasing him from the burden of her pain.  Conscious of her need to ensure he doesn’t repeat the mistakes of his father, she rehabilitates the image of the man who has hurt the both of them, reminding her son of his father’s good qualities and refusing to allow the sins of the father to become the sins of the son. “You’re of me, not mine. Perfect in my eyes. You’re gonna be alright. Take the best parts of him as your own life begins. Leave the bad news behind.”

The fiddle and banjo shine on “Young Man,” along with some pedal steel, reinforcing that this is a safe place for him to be vulnerable.  It’s a pure country track that mirrors the unfiltered expression of emotion that the song conveys.  Maines’ vocal, Strayer’s banjo, and Maguire’s fiddle blend together like a protective hug.  It’s like a musical anecdote for toxic masculinity. 

The contrast between the two messages and Maines’ delivery of each speaks volumes about gender expectations and the different paths laid out in front of their girls and their boys, but both songs have the same essential core:  their mothers love them and don’t want them to be burdened by their pain.  Taken together, “Julianna Calm Down” and “Young Man” are the best songs about parenting that I’ve ever heard, and are collectively Gaslighter’s finest moment.

On the album’s closing tracks, you can almost sense the Chicks walking down the hallway after conversations with the children and reaching the sanctuary of their bedroom.  There, they get to process their feelings one more time, and get to be a bit vulnerable themselves, without sacrificing the independence they’ve earned along the way.

“Hope it’s Something Good” opens with the banality of post-breakup life, the inner monologue contrasting with the daily routines that she’s doing to keep herself busy:  “There I go trying to keep myself distracted.  So I make the bed, call a friend, do the dishes. Should I have known? Should I have seen a sign? When did you know? Why’d you pretend to try?”

There’s no urgency as they ask these questions. When the Chicks sing, “If you’re gone, I hope it’s really worth it,” they’re not actually wondering if he’s really gone.  They’re just a little worn out from what it all means: “Twenty years of hangin’ on. Now it all adds up to nothin’.”  Maybe it was having a good talk with their kids that put them in this mindset, but whatever the reason, anger and grief has faded to acceptance and even something resembling well wishes: “I hope she’s something good.”

“Hope it’s Something Good” benefits tremendously from Jack Antanoff’s penchant for letting songs breathe.  In case you didn’t notice during “Young Man,” the Chicks are making straight up country now, with the fiddles, banjo, and steel front and center. But where a conventional country song, like the ones that populated their first two albums, would’ve had a tight instrumental break followed by a repeat of the chorus, the fiddle solo on “Hope it’s Something Good” lingers for a full minute, increasingly interlaced with ethereal harmonies and pedal steel. It lulls you into a dreamlike state the way that pop records are given time and space to do, and it does it in gorgeous country music style. 

 

The album closes with an echo of “Let Him Fly,” the final song on their second Maines-helmed album, Fly. The stripped down arrangement of that track is revisited, with a mournful fiddle and pedal steel that make it one of the most purely country tracks the Chicks have ever recorded.  On “Let Him Fly,” it was Maines granting freedom to a lover that had already emotionally moved on, “Set Me Free” finds her being denied the same by the husband who has scorned her.  “Decency,” she wails, “would be for you to sign and release me.”  For all the damage that he has done, she still clings to the hope that there is a remnant left of the man she loves.  In the album’s most heartbreaking moment, she casts away all bravado and pleads:  “Just because you’ve been a bad guy, I’ve seen it with my own eyes, there’s a good guy in there.”  

For a long time, I felt that the closing track undercut the journey of the album, which felt like it had reached a point of acceptance by its penultimate track.  But “Gaslighter” is the title track for a reason, and “Set Me Free” proves its point more than any other song on the album.  The issue here is not that Maines is still struggling to get past what’s happened.  She’s really clear about that: “The weight of this hate was exhausting. You risked my body, broke my spirit.  And still, I’ve let you go.”  

The toxicity of the gaslighter means that all of that still isn’t enough for him.  Whether he’s holding out for a big payday, as the title track implies, or just continuing through some form of emotional manipulation, as is implied in “My Best Friend’s Weddings,” she’s still tethered in some way.  She’s the one who’s been wronged, and the one who’s had to repair the damage, but it’s still not a clear enough victory for him. In the end, the listener is right there with her, as we are also denied the peace of mind that comes with full closure.  Gaslighter, indeed.  

It can be a futile thought exercise to imagine what mainstream country music would’ve sounded like if the post-9/11 exile of women from the radio dial hadn’t happened.  But I can’t help wondering about it, as the genre has incorporated elements of rock and hip-hop without hesitation, two genres that are as dominated by male artists as country music insists upon being.  

I disagree with the assertion that Gaslighter is not a country album, despite it being one that the Chicks themselves would fully endorse.  But as a New York City boy, I’ve always been fairly insulated from the regional identity associated with country music, and as far as mainstream country music is concerned, that sense of identity is all that’s left.   What makes something country in 2020 is almost completely untethered from what the music actually sounds like.  It can sound like R&B, hip-hop, and garage rock.  But as long as it’s being made by men who present themselves as being “country” in orientation and worldview, and as long as women are kept in their place at the margins, they’re making country music. 

I can understand why the Chicks want nothing to do with that scene. Indeed, if Maines thought “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” made country music sound ignorant twenty years ago, I fully understand her desire to stay the hell away from how country music presents itself today.

But in its sound, spirit, and sheer humanity, this album feels completely connected to the country music that I fell in love with in the nineties.  Gaslighter suggests an alternate history where women kept their seats at the table, and it’s a window into a far better reality than the barren wasteland that is contemporary country music.

Genre classification aside, Gaslighter is a stunning artistic achievement, and more so than any previous Chicks album, it is a full realization of their collective talents.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.  It’s easily the best album of 2020, and ranks among the very best country albums of the 21st century. 

 

11 Comments

  1. I think Gaslighter, like their other albums, proved that the Chicks always separated themselves from the pack because of their willingness to be a self-contained female group that played their own instruments and mix elements of contemporary country, bluegrass, and rock. They were, in a word, subversive; and the fact that Nashville shunned them over one comment that was taken (deliberately) out of context is a scarlet letter that that town and the industry should always be forced to wear (IMHO).

  2. I couldn’t agree more. An instant classic for this century, every track weaved together in so many ways with the others, without a clunker in the bunch. I hope it wins many accolades.

  3. Gaslighter was fantastic. The sound of the album is great and the songwriting is still on point. Gaslighter is easily one of the best albums of 2020.

  4. A beautiful, thoughtful, substantive review. Thank you, Kevin. I especially appreciate your pushing back on the idea that this is not, at least in part, a country album. “Young Man,” as you note, is a terrific country song.

    And yeah, glad I’m not Adrian Pasdar.

  5. Great album. Probably my next favorite The Chicks album after Home.

    But I am quite puzzled with Antonoff’s production choices in How Do You Sleep?, Julianna Calm Down, March March and For Her. These songs sound a bit too heavy in my opinion. I wish he lets every song breathe just like what he did with the last three tracks. It sounded okay with Taylor Swift since she is doing pop, but country or Americana could do less with the electronic sound.

  6. What an excellent review. Gaslighter is the soundtrack of my marriage and how it ended. I am blown how well you understood and articulated the point of view of women and mothers. Thank you for that.
    I too fell in love with country music in the 90’s as a French immigrant to the US and I agree that The Chicks are more country than what we hear on country radio these days. I’m disappointed we lost so much potential music after they were attacked but I am so grateful they are back, unchanged, unapologetic and better than ever.

  7. I’ve listened to Gaslighter (the song) a couple of times before reading your review. It didn’t do a lot for me, so I had no desire of listening to the album. After your glowing review, I decided to give the album a listen. The song, Gaslighter, is growing on me. I agree the album is a quality one. However, it felt like I was listening an album Taylor Swift makes in about 12 years, so personally it did not do much for me.

    I am going to push back on this being a Country album. I would say it is Americana all the way. If one is to say an album is one of the very best Country albums of the century. It should be without a doubt a Country album. There are moments of pure Country Music, however, most of those occur after the first 5 songs. I recently listened to Reba’s 2019 album and that is an album from start to finish Country album. Give it a listen to better understand my reasoning.

  8. This review was so well-written and thoughtful that it actually prompted me to give this album a few more listens and I’m so glad I did.  I waited a couple of weeks after the release to even listen to it for the first (and maybe second) time.  I’m not sure why I was so hesitant since I do love the Chicks.  After that first listen, however, nothing other than the title track really stood out to me, and even that was just alright, I thought (maybe because it was one of the few uptempo moments on the album).  Anyway, the way you framed this review caused me to go back and listen carefully, multiple times, with new ears.  I’ve re-read this review after each listen to see if I was able to pick up on what you noted and to find something new to listen for the next time.  I would say my favorites now are My Best Friend’s Weddings, Julianna Calm Down, For Her and Texas Man.  I’m not sure if the point of a review for an album a reviewer likes is to encourage a reader to listen to it, but this one certainly did that for me and I thank you.

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