Album Reviews

The Chicks – Gaslighter

(Columbia) UK release date: 17 July 2020

The Chicks - Gaslighter Gaslighter is a title track in a league of its own; The Chicks burst down the doors of their first studio album in 14 years with a track that begins almost gospel then sashays exuberantly into a stylised pop-ballad. This emphatic track could even be interpreted politically, if you were so inclined. It appears that with the long overdue drop of the Dixie part of their name, The Chicks have also finally dropped their country sound… and maybe a man who committed a few sins at sea. As usual when The Chicks decide on a path, they don’t hesitate to jump in with both feet, nor shy away from the ugly truth. 

Most of the narrative surrounding Gaslighter is around Maines’ painful divorce; “gaslighter, big timer, repeating all the mistakes of your father”,  “you’re sorry, but where’s my apology?”, “hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m done?” are some of the brutal lyrical highlights which allow the listener to truly feel swept away in the cathartic narrative. If you didn’t know much about Maines and her ex-husband, this album will teach you how they met, various stages of his adulterous affair, how Maines explains the situation to her kids and a lot about her boat, which is a character in and of itself.

Lyrically there is no vehement stone unturned, The Chicks cover everything from how children suffer in the maelstrom of divorce to a pertinent call-to-arms around protests. Production wise, however, Gaslighter is smooth. With main producer Jack Antonoff – who has worked with the likes of St Vincent and Lana Del Rey – being the most popular collaborator on this record, sonically The Chicks have never sounded more easy going, at perfect odds with the difficult subject matter. Gaslighter is the album equivalent of putting on your best makeup to visit that bar your ex always goes to: vulnerable and vengeful. The trio don’t sound at all like they’re making a long-awaited return to the spotlight, they’re perfectly present and perfectly pop; they seem at ease in the pop genre, which may annoy some of their long-term country fans. But the group have had their semi-country comeback, showing that exile doesn’t phase them (and might win you a Grammy) and now, it seems, they’ve buried their bluegrass hatchets for good.

At times, Gaslighter’s sound is a little too familiar, lingering with the productional haunts of the pop genre: catchy but sometimes lacklustre background vocals (as seen in For Her) and a penchant for synthetic sounding percussion (best seen in Julianna Calm Down) but these are minor compared to the successes of the album. Where Gaslighter soars is when a little more personality is brought into the production, as well as leaning into the Chicks as a trio. Texas Man is a high point, it’s twang, both in Maines’ vocals and the electric guitar, is suitably fun for the discussion of a new body to tangle with, whilst the percussion would be extravagant enough to be labelled chaotic if it weren’t for Antonoff’s signature polish. It has none of the simmering anger of elsewhere on the record, but it’s still punchy, contemporary pop, with hints of Maguire’s fiddle, and it’s still everything that The Chicks has come to stand for: imperfect, raw storytelling. It’s compelling and Maines’ vocals truly shine.

Set Me Free is a complete departure from the vibrantly bewitching tone of Texas Man, as well as Gaslighter and Tights On My Boat, but this final track is understatedly beautiful. With minimalist, soft guitar, it cements Gaslighter as an album that points to the universal experience of women hurt by not only their partners, but society at large. The vulnerability, pain, and doubt The Chicks channel in this track, and elsewhere on the album with March March, speak to a universal need for freedom. “Decency/Would be for you to sign and release me” can easily speak to Maines’ difficult divorce, or The Chicks’ long time contract with Sony, but it could equally be a bigger metaphor for the music industry’s treatment of women. The Chicks have used Gaslighter to explore the microcosm of Maine’s private life, in all its excruciating detail, but the narrative speaks to a larger call for transparency.

Some may argue Gaslighter is petty, Maines’ ex-husband even tried to halt the production of this record, but what could be mistaken for pettiness is just a woman being justifiably angry. The Chicks are confessional, unforgiving and just that little bit self-deprecating – considering the plans for their final album under their long-suffering Sony contract was for an easy covers album, this is an unexpected – but welcome – change. From bow to stern The Chicks take us on a musical boat ride, with infectious top lines you’ll be humming long after the album has ended – just make sure you don’t leave your tights. 

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