When The Chicks announced they’d be releasing a new album in 2020, the waiting was the hardest part. Most of us couldn’t wait to hear the music Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines, and Emily Strayer were going to share with us on their first studio album since 2006’s Taking the Long Way. Anticipation contains the seeds of disappointment, though, and there’s sure to be some letdown if we’re expecting the band to return to its glory days.
On a first listen, the album simply fails to live up the hype of the return of the band that gave us “Goodbye, Earl” and “Wide Open Spaces.” On that first listen, one song fades into another with a tiresome sameness, and Gaslighter proves to be a disheartening return. “Tights on My Boat” and “Juliana Calm Down,” for example, slide into each other so effortlessly that you wonder when the track changed.
On a third or fourth listen, though, the songs spring to life with a fierce defiance and a life of their own, and that sameness fades as The Chicks cannily traverse musical boundaries in their signature soaring harmonies and atmospheric instrumentals. The beauty of the songs unfolds in layers, revealing a lyrical maturity, a river of emotion, and their usual bold shredding of the personal, cultural, and political fabric that marginalizes women and children or that embraces the inauthentic as the authentic. If in the most personal songs on the album, such as “Young Man” and “Julianna Calm Down,” The Chicks wear their hearts on the sleeves, it is only because they want to illustrate how deeply politics and culture imbue the personal.
The title track opens the album, and sets the bar high for the rest of the album. The song kicks off with bright a cappella vocals that blossom into a rousing and rollicking sing-along tune whose happy-go-lucky pop choruses belie its savaging lyrics: “You know you lie best when you lie to you / Cause boy you know exactly what you did on my boat / And boy that’s exactly why you ain’t comin’ home / Save your tired stories for your new someone else.”
“Julianna Calm Down” opens quietly, almost like a lullaby, but expands into a swelling anthem riding along Jack Antonoff’s mellotron, Lloyd Maines’s pedal steel, and Maguire’s plucked violin strings, which give the ending of the song a steel drum vibe. The song celebrates The Chicks’ daughters and nieces, calling them out by name, urging them to be strong in the face of the obstacles they face: “Julianna calm down / You know he’s about to leave but don’t panic / Don’t give him the satisfaction that / you can’t handle it.”
“Young Man” opens sparely with vocals and guitar, piercing in its somber note to a son of divorce, encouraging him to go his own way knowing that his blues are not his parents’ blues. With its steady drumbeat, “March March” creates stark but hopeful images. At a time when many believe that “Lies are truth and truth is fiction,” the song lays down the challenge for us to be active and realize that we can be agents for change in the world.
If Gaslighter opens on an exuberant note, it closes on a somber one with the hauntingly atmospheric “Set Me Free,” an echoing chamber piece that’s at once an entreaty to be released from the claustrophobia of a relationship and its enduring effects and a proclamation of the power of liberation.
Gaslighter develops slowly, taking its time to wend its way into our hearts, and maybe that’s what great music does anyway: it chooses us. The Chicks’ songs live in us and suddenly one or the other of them names exactly our feelings about some aspect of our personal lives. That’s the genius of Gaslighter.