'Gaslighter' Review: The Chicks' comeback album is a bluegrass/pop gem and a testament to their resilience
After a wild ride and an extended hiatus, The Chicks (previously known as the Dixie Chicks) have finally re-emerged with their first studio album in 14 years, 'Gaslighter'. And where they previously declared, via their final albums before their hiatus, that they were standing their ground even if it meant it would put them on the hardest path, 'Gaslighter' sees The Chicks return to a softer, bluegrass-based sound that has them oscillating between vulnerably musing on their growth over the last decade and a half, reiterating their firm stance on social justice issues, and embracing life as it comes.
The Chicks were one of the top country acts at the height of their career in the early 2000s. But on March 10, 2003, days before the US invaded Iraq, lead singer Natalie Maine declared, backed by her bandmates sisters Martie Erwin Maguire and Emily Strayer, that the group did not support the invasion and was "ashamed" that President Bush was from Texas. The backlash was swift. The girls were soon denounced by country music fans and received death threats. Despite Maines being forced to apologize, no pardon followed. In 2006, Mains rescinded her apology, and the group put out the album 'Taking The Long Way' and declared they were 'Not Ready to Make Nice'. Despite having limited airplay and the girls being effectively 'canceled', the album still debuted atop charts and did well commercially. But for the girls, the backlash disillusioned them and made them feel ostracized from communities they once called home. Maines would later share in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2003, "We don't feel a part of the country scene any longer, it can't be our home anymore." She added that their fellow country stars abandoned them and instead, "We won three Grammys against much stronger competition. So we now consider ourselves part of the big rock 'n' roll family." The Chicks continued to see support from their wider audience but were also continuously shunned by organizations when it came to partnerships and deals.
Following their experiences, the girls went on a break. And during that time, they experienced more ups and downs in their personal lives. And out of these experiences has emerged 'Gaslighter', an album that encompasses their growth as individuals and musicians as well as storytellers and songwriters. Maines, in particular, after having her voice stifled for nearly two decades, truly shines on tracks like 'Everybody Loves You' as well as 'March March', the group's latest single that serves as a silent, haunting call-to-arms. 'My Best Friend's Wedding' blends the more hopeful, healing thematic elements that The Chicks explore on this record with the silent, gentle sounds heard across all the tracks. It gently picks up steam over its course, bringing in more of that classic bluegrass sound The Chicks debuted with and including flawless harmonies and a stunning fiddle solo from Maguire all culminating in Maines getting to deliver her brand of understated powerhouse vocals backed by Strayer's banjo.
'Tights On My Boat' is an interesting track that adds a slightly darker tinge to the bluegrass sound being established on the prior tracks, while 'Julianna Calm Down' sees The Chicks reintroduce the contemporary pop back into their sound, gently building from melodic to upbeat, and from emotional to euphoric. By the end of the track, the record hits the same highs as 'Gaslighter' and makes the album feel almost like going through a look-back at The Chicks' journey thus far. 'Young Man' strips it back again, once again allowing Maines' vocals to cut through and tug at your heartstrings, and understandably so, since the song features the singer addressing her sons in an emotional open letter. Lyrically, this song is probably the best off the album, with Maines asking her children to take the best parts of their parents, learn from their mistakes, and understand that, despite her flaws and failings, she did the best she could before essentially letting go and allowing them to "walk in their own shoes."
Closing tracks 'Hope Its Something Good' and 'Set Me Free' once again brings the bluegrass sounds back into focus, blending the stellar songwriting, haunting vocals, and goosebump-inducing harmonies back. They serve as a culmination of all the songwriting highs the album has hit thus far and sees The Chicks accepting the pain they've faced, both as a group that was internationally shunned as well as the individual struggles they braved in their personal lives. Addressing their "twenty years" of "highs and lows," the group goes from reminiscing and healing to "setting themselves free" and moving on in the album's finale. And if 'Set Me Free' is any indication, The Chicks are truly and finally free.
All up, 'Gaslighter' is one hell of a ride. It is an understated album from a band that is not afraid to make bold statements. But it delivers a sense of maturity that comes from two decades of fighting and growing and learning. It's still The Chicks at their finest, both musically and lyrically, but it is also a demonstration of their immense skills as artistes as well as their resilience as individuals, reflected perfectly in the balancing act they play with delivering highly intense themes over gentle, softer sounds. 'Gaslighter' is a wonderfully crafted album, one that highlights just what the world was missing when they attempted to silence The Chicks.