Gaslighter is sort of caught somewhere in the middle, in more ways than one.
Let’s try to frame that conversation surrounding the Chicks from another angle, shall we?
The conversation, of course, still surrounds the country music industry and its response to that incident, but I’m saving its messy, post 9/11 politics for another conversation. If anything, you’d think the music would play a larger part in the conversation … and it does, albeit in a different way.
Which is a messier way of saying that, despite the Chicks’ music playing no role in their temporary cultural decline, it was the first unfortunate casualty – where consolidation in radio meant that the Chicks’ music was unanimously dropped from playlists and where the trio received no vocal support from their peers. Time would vindicate the Chicks in more ways than one, namely in how, in the aftermath of a ‘90s boom where women ruled the radio and a turn of the millennium where the Chicks ushered the genre in an interesting, fresh direction – both lyrically and sonically, especially with songs like “Goodbye Earl” that aimed to make certain listeners feel uncomfortable – the industry’s method of “replacing” them wasn’t so subtle. I mean, Gretchen Wilson debuted the year after with “Redneck Woman,” and it didn’t take long for the trio’s influence to show through newer groups – even just a few years later with the Wreckers.
Ironically, then, the next woman who truly shook the genre’s core spoke to an entirely different audience of country music fans. Granted, the country music industry was kinder to Taylor Swift, but the stories intertwined at some point, with both acts stretching away from country music for entirely different reasons after making successful bids at pop music – the Chicks with their 2006 comeback album, Taking The Long Way, and Swift with 2012’s Red. And the fact that we’re still celebrating the “independent female artist(s)” triumphing over a naturally unfair environment as a rare occurrence is part of the larger problem, but again, another conversation for another day. Put it this way, it wasn’t surprising to hear the Chicks featured on Swift’s Lover album from last year.
And now those paths have crossed again, with the Chicks working with Swift producer Jack Antonoff for their Gaslighter album and pushing forward with the pop foundation they kinda-sorta planted over 14 years ago. You can’t blame them, really, nor is the news surprising, given that lead singer Natalie Maines has been vocal of her disdain for the country music industry and the music in general. And for those surprised that Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer – two sisters that happen to be skilled instrumentalists – would go along with it, it’s not like that Court Yard Hounds album doesn’t exist to subdue any weird theories that it’s all just Maines’ show. If anything, it may have foreshadowed what was to come when the Chicks finally reunited after taking time to focus on raising their families.
So here it is – the trio’s long-awaited eighth studio album, reportedly centered around Maines’ divorce from Adrian Pasdar, where, as one might suspect, there’s a lot to unpack. First of all, as an album that acts as somewhat of a more official rebrand for the band than their previous album did, the attempt at a crossover pop-country fusion has potential, but feels only half-finished. For as impressive as Antonoff’s work has been on albums from St. Vincent and Lorde, here, it’s clear he’s working in uncharted territory and sort of winging it as he goes. And I’ll join those in saying that this feels less like a Chicks project and more like just a way for Maines to use the band name to help this garner attention, which is a shame; the problem isn’t the idea, it’s the execution.
What’s most surprising for the style is how empty and undercooked it feels as a whole. The go-to method seems to be to mix badly blended, heavy percussion with banjo (which, along with Maguire’s fiddle play, always feels like it’s getting more token representation than it should, save for the fairly good outro to “March March”), and it makes these tracks feel shockingly thin in the low end, especially when it follows the typical pop trend of favoring percussion over actual melody. Even still, the melodies and hooks are usually fairly good, especially on the title track and “Sleep At Night.” But even for a pop album favoring its content over the presentation of it, there’s still plenty of awkward moments that could have been fine-tuned: the weird guitar tuning effect and blocky percussion on “Texas Man” sounds more sickly than “fun,” which is really the only track here aiming for that style, especially when everything ramps up on the hook and comes through way too loud and overcompressed. The same can be said for “For Her,” which, sure, is aiming to be more anthemic, but is also where that aforementioned issue with a real lack of pulse to this album feels oddly noticeable.
And it feels awkward saying that the more country-inspired tracks work better for them, but I remember Home; the Chicks thrive in a subdued environment. Part of that is because of Maines herself, who’s always handled the majority of the vocals for the band. And if there was a time to test more than just her technical abilities, it’s here. The harmonies feel oddly unflattering and sharp this time around – especially compared to past Chicks projects – but what I enjoy most about Gaslighter is the complex framing that encompasses it, both in the content and through Maines’ performances. For as much as she’s earned the right to let loose her rage on the title track and “Tights On My Boat,” the entire point is to move past wallowing in it – which makes sense, given that the hollowness of the latter track with the messier flow is the one time it all feels intentional on this project. Sure, there’s the odd inclusion of “March March,” which is a predictable political cut for them that lacks the right amount of populism, precision and power to cut through, but there’s also an incredible cover of Charlotte Lawrence’s “Everybody Loves You,” where the muted tone works to capture how broken Maines is at that point in the project – really, she sings it like she wrote it.
And while it’s not a concept album in the sense that every track bleeds into the next one, there is a natural thematic progression to this work. One of my initial criticisms with the lead single title track was that it featured the details, but didn’t really flesh them out much. Yet if I wondered then what happened on Maines’ boat, I get the full picture from listening to the album, which moves through stages of messy, frustrated, understandable rage to tempered observations and reflections on what it will mean for the future – not just for her or her ex-husband, but also her sons, which frames two of the best cuts on here, “Sleep At Night” and “Young Man,” the latter possibly being one of the best songs of the trio’s entire career.
What best fuels that track is its empathy – how Maines understands how awkward it must be for her son to watch his idol fall from grace and wonder if he’s doomed to follow a similar path, where Maines tells him to, instead, use the experience to learn and be a better man. It’s certainly better than “Julianna Come Down,” a track that speaks to Maguire and Strayer’s daughters (along with several other possibly connected names) – still from Maines, awkwardly enough – where her advice to them is to just … get over it, regarding their pain felt from their own bad breakups. Granted, the intent is to provide enough temporary solace to where they can get to that point, but there’s multiple stages to grief that this track glazes over in its attempt to be a weak empowerment anthem.
Truly, though, starting with “Young Man” on through, Gaslighter is excellent. “Hope It’s Something Good” finds Maines addressing her ex head-on in a way that suggests she’s, for one, ready to do that, and two, ready to accept what happened and move on, which fully manifests itself on the closer, “Set Me Free.”
And the messiness to get that fantastic ending run feels intentional, where the experimentation with sound feels genuine – if undercooked – and where Maines finds the composure needed to move on. With that said, as their final album for Sony, it’s hard to tell if the sonic adventure is the start of something more or just a way to fuel a thematic arc. Either way, it’s a messy listen that falls somewhere in the middle – caught somewhere between country and pop, but not quite great enough to transcend either genre; and caught in a flurry of emotions that only cut through with the intended power in spurts. And as the trio’s path comes to a crossroads, it’s worth pondering whether we’ll hear more Maines and less “Chicks” on future endeavors. For now, it’s a messy comeback that subverts expectations, which is how the trio have always operated, really. But I’m not sure what it says for where they stand now, even if it’s an interesting journey nonetheless.
- Favorite tracks: “Young Man,” “Hope It’s Something Good,” “Set Me Free,” “Everybody Loves You,” “Sleep At Night”
- Least favorite track: “March March”