The 'Dixie'-less Chicks make a thrilling return with a painfully vivid breakup album
By MIKAEL WOOD | Los Angeles Times | Published: July 16, 2020
The Chicks didn’t need to drop the "Dixie" from their name to raise suspicions about their reverence for American tradition.
Announced late last month — just weeks before the July 17 release of "Gaslighter," the trio’s first studio album in 14 years — the name change was framed as part of a widespread racial reckoning that’s led many to reconsider words and symbols from the Civil War-era South.
"We want to meet this moment," the Chicks said on their website, echoing a similar statement from the country group Lady A, which recently shortened its name from Lady Antebellum.
Yet detractors viewed the Chicks’ move as merely the latest affront in a sustained battle against heartland values. In 2003, while riding high as one of Nashville’s biggest acts (with three multi-platinum albums in a row), the group famously infuriated conservative listeners when singer Natalie Maines told a London audience that she was ashamed of President George W. Bush.
The outrage machine revved back into gear in 2016 when the Chicks joined Beyonce for a performance at that year’s Country Music Assn. Awards.
So with a title like "Gaslighter" — a term often used to describe President Trump — it’s easy to assume the Chicks’ new album marks their eager reentry into a culture war that’s grown only more heated since they were last writing songs. After all, the band’s previous LP, 2006’s "Taking the Long Way," explicitly addressed the fallout from Maines’ Bush comments — and was rewarded with five Grammy Awards (including for album, record and song of the year).
Instead, "Gaslighter" turns out to be the Chicks’ most intensely personal effort yet, with song after song apparently inspired by Maines’ 2019 divorce. In the title track and "Sleep at Night" she lays out an ex’s deception in brutal detail; "Set Me Free" describes "the weight of this hate" and pleads with the guy to sign the required papers already.
In the chipper yet sensual "Texas Man," Maines (who these days lives in Los Angeles) looks past the pain of betrayal to long for a fellow from her native state "who can feel at home here in the California sand."
If it’s somewhat unexpected here, the tight focus on relationships reflects the Chicks’ understanding that, for women, the personal is always political — that to call out the manipulations of one man is to identify the various systems that combined to enable them.
But it’s also an acknowledgment that, name-change kerfuffle aside, the environment around the Chicks has evolved. In the run-up to "Gaslighter," some have recalled "the incident" — as 45-year-old Maines and her bandmates, sisters Martie Maguire, 50, and Emily Strayer, 47, refer to the 2003 backlash — as an early embodiment of so-called cancel culture.
Now, though, nobody would use that term in describing a public figure newly cast out for holding views deemed too progressive; "canceling," to the extent that it actually exists, has come to mean just the opposite.
Which isn’t to say that the Chicks weren’t punished, particularly by radio programmers, for what Maines said — or that they aren’t still reviled by folks for whom "Dixie" is nothing more than a harmless reminder of a bygone age. But in contrast with the early 2000s, when few in music stepped up to defend the women, the Chicks are widely regarded today as heroes by their peers and inheritors.
And those deplorables that continue to bad-mouth the band on Twitter? By their own admission, the women couldn’t care less about them, which means they’re not about to waste their big comeback record trying to change the way they think.
It’s interesting to imagine the path the Chicks might’ve taken had the incident not taken place. Minus that clarifying moment, perhaps they would’ve followed, say, Reba McEntire’s lead in seeking to expand ideas of womanhood in country music in ways subtle enough to maintain their core audience — and ways too subtle to attract newcomers in any great number.
Things having happened as they did — after "Taking the Long Way," the trio toured intermittently, while Maines made a rock-leaning solo record and Maguire and Strayer formed the folky Court Yard Hounds — "Gaslighter" demonstrates the band’s pull on newcomers. The album was produced by Jack Antonoff, known for his work with Lana Del Rey and Lorde — and with Taylor Swift, who recruited the Chicks to sing backup on last year’s "Lover" — and it features songwriting and instrumental contributions by the likes of St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, Ariel Rechtshaid and the duo of Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels, who’ve written smashes for Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez.
The sound is sleek but homey, with banjo and fiddle mixing with keyboards and programmed percussion behind the Chicks’ crisp vocal harmonies, which haven’t aged at all in a decade and a half. (Think mid-period Sheryl Crow buffed to a glossy digital sheen.) But although you can hear the women’s delight in using fresh textures and colors, "Gaslighter" doesn’t have the feel of a veteran act desperate for a reboot; what comes through is their collaborators’ excitement about being permitted into the Chicks’ private world.
That represents a neat reversal from the late ’90s, when the trio got going after an earlier phase with a different lead singer; for all their smiley exuberance, the Chicks back then could put across a young-fogey quality — musically if not attitudinally — in their determination to please their roots-music elders, including Maines’ dad, Lloyd, a mainstay of the Texas country scene. Here, they’re the ones whose approval matters.
Indeed, one of the most gratifying aspects of "Gaslighter" — and something else that gives this quietly thrilling record a sly political edge almost in spite of itself — is its emphasis on the concerns of middle age so rarely heard in big-ticket pop records by women. In "Young Man," Maines sings tenderly about explaining her ex’s misdeeds to her two sons; "Hope It’s Something Good" describes the singer’s attempts to busy herself in a newly empty home.
The writing throughout is sharp and vivid, with wonderfully specific scenes set at the Hollywood Bowl (where Maines remembers being introduced to "my husband’s girlfriend") and on her boat (where the woman in question leaves behind a telltale pair of tights). In "March March," the only expressly topical tune on "Gaslighter," Maines inveighs against gun nuts and climate deniers and wonders, in a sweet voice turned suddenly growly, "What the hell happened in Helsinki?"
The line is surely a reference to Trump’s infamous backing of Vladimir Putin during a 2018 press conference. Yet Maines doesn’t sound concerned in the slightest that she might again be in for some blowback. She fought that war; others await.