Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Review: Gaslighter • The Chicks

The last time The Chicks (née Dixie Chicks) released music, George W. Bush was midway through his second term in the Oval Office. The economy was near implosion, and the nation was waist-deep in an endless war with a moving target – the war that lead vocalist Natalie Maines had protested three years previous. In hindsight, the war was revealed to be the product of the largest public relations blunder in American history. But when Maines told her London crowd in 2003 – very tamely for 2020 standards, mind you – that she was ashamed of Bush’s decision to invade the Middle East, America had been whipped into an insatiable patriotic frenzy. To many, war was the only option – and Maines was unfairly determined to be a domestic terrorist for exercising her First Amendment right.

The Chicks’ story has been retold under every headline about them since 2003. If it hasn’t been the topic of an academic case study, it certainly should be. However, the iterations often are built upon the underlying belief that The Chicks are just the victims of a sexist, radical society. And while that is true, their resilience and endurance are often underplayed, if mentioned at all. Across the country, The Chicks were destroyed in effigy, blacklisted, and on one occasion, threatened to be shot on stage. Nevertheless, their nationwide tour – with most shows sold out – went on as scheduled the same year. By 2006, they stormed back: Shut Up and Sing, a documentary that covered the aftermath of their personal ground zero, was released in tandem with Taking The Long Way, a lauded studio record that collected five Grammy Awards. The Chicks prevailed, then fell silent.

Even after we as a nation realized that his marketing campaign that packaged and sold the endless war to the American public unraveled beneath him, George W. Bush could be seen no more than a mere dunce in comparison to the national embarrassment in the Oval Office today. In the wake of Kathy Griffin’s self-sacrificial stances against Donald Trump, Maines’ anti-war declaration is well within the contemporary standards for political protest today. Theoretically, The Chicks should be cleared for landing with Gaslighter, their full-length return to music. But enter Maines’ ex-husband, actor Adrian Pasdar, who attempted to bar the record’s release on grounds that its narrative may violate a prenuptial confidentiality agreement. If two sentences could trigger a lifetime struggle, what are the consequences of an entire record? The Chicks don’t care.

Despite The Chicks’ strained relationship with country music and its predominantly conservative listenership, Gaslighter listens like a country album for the modern era, which has granted a fresh space for left ideals and pop-colored variations in the genre since the last time The Chicks promoted a full-length effort. Written and produced with pop music’s most prominent contributors – most notably, executive producer Jack Antonoff and songwriters Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels, whose minimalist preference is this record's Achilles' heel – Gaslighter is built upon stronghold country archetypes: Songs about heartbreak and the other woman. All three of The Chicks – Maines and multi-instrumentalist sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer – divorced their husbands during their hiatus, though Maines may claim stake for the most fiery, given the court battle over this very album.

The Chicks’ battle cry rings deeply personal – and oftentimes, not only for them. The title track makes it clear who the original gaslighter was – "Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat, and boy, that’s exactly why you ain’t coming home," Maines stings on the record's strongest track, only to reference the scene of the crime in more detail later on "Tights on My Boat" – but within the signature harmonies of the chorus, a certain commander-in-chief certainly comes to mind. "Wish I could go back and tell my younger self, 'You're a fighter, you just don't know it yet,'" she sings over the gentle ripples of a vintage synthesizer on "For Her," equal parts a self-reflection and a large scale cry for women's rights. And in the era of Black Lives Matter, the movement which inspired them to drop “Dixie” from their name, "March March" takes a new meaning with its brooding underbelly and bare vocal take.

Contrary to indications from its title track or third single, the accusatory "Sleep at Night," Gaslighter is hardly a singalong record. These are campfire folks songs for the scorned and betrayed, stripped to their fewest elements to allow Maines' words to take a direct hit her listeners. Truth be told, those looking for another cheeky anthem to which they can murder an abusive husband should probably look elsewhere, because this record won't offer much in terms of typical fare from The Chicks. (Probably goes without saying, but the girl who left her garments on Maines' boat best steer clear, too.) But those who want the honest assessment as to how Maines, Maguire, and Strayer have felt in the past decade – and how they pivot their anger over personal affairs into a similar outrage for societal issues at large with nearly seamless translation – step right up. 

Gaslighter is available now under Columbia Records.

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