It would’ve been a shame if the long-awaited return of the Dixie Chicks came in the form of an uninspired album of covers that existed only to fulfill a contractual obligation with their record label. Which, according to the group, that was their original plan. However, things changed when inspiration struck lead singer Natalie Maines in one of the most painful of ways; she and her husband of 17 years went through a virulent divorce that wasn’t finalized until last year. And never one to shy away from speaking her mind, Maines, joined by bandmates Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire—now simply “the Chicks”—used the experience as fuel for their first studio album in 14 years, titled “Gaslighter.”
The LP opens full force, guns blazing with the title track and lead single, “Gaslighter,” a foot-stomping number with tight chorus harmonies. A fiery Maines takes listeners on a musical journey of her marriage, from the early days of moving from Texas to California for her husband’s acting career, up until the eventual deterioration and aftermath. “Hollywood welcomed you with open doors/No matter what they gave you, you still wanted more/Acting all above it when our friends divorced/What a lie-lie-lie-lie-lie,” she sings. This track also features that already infamous line about Maines’ boat, a cause for much speculation among fans that thankfully is revisited later in the record.
Moving full steam ahead, “Sleep at Night” is another gut punch. Accompanied by a twangy banjo and a steady symphony of drums from producer Jack Antonoff, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Maines’ son, Beckett, it’s a confessional tale from the point of view of not only a wife reeling from her husband’s infidelity, but also a mother navigating uncharted waters trying to do best by her children. “My husband's girlfriend's husband just called me up/How messed up is that?/It's so insane that I have to laugh,” Maines jokes, but quickly realizes something in the next breath. “But then I think about our two boys trying to become men/There's nothing funny about that.”
The third song on the record is just as lively and rousing as the first two with its heavy electric guitars and bassline, but lyrically “Texas Man” is a much-needed reprieve from the heart-wrenching story Maines is telling. Instead of recounting the heartbreak, it details part of the healing process that comes after a separation. Maines is looking to find somebody to move on with that will accept the “a little bit unraveled” and “a little bit more traveled” version of her post-breakup.
The record lulls in the middle with some forgettable tracks, like the only song not penned by the Chicks, “Everybody Loves You,” and “March March,” the lone protest song seeming out of place on a divorce record. But the back half of “Gaslighter” is a quiet revival that marks Maines’ shift in attitude from angry to resolute.
“Hope It’s Something Good” is a true gem, finding Maines questioning if she missed the warning signs and should’ve seen this firestorm coming. Atop of Strayer’s banjo and Maguire’s mournful fiddle, that signature voice narrates going through the motions and keeping busy to take her mind off the fact her world is imploding, dejectedly telling her ex she hopes throwing away 20 years of life together is worth it. In the melancholy ballad “Set Me Free,” she’s now exhausted, seemingly lost all will to fight. She’s tried everything she knows to move on but can’t fully do so until her ex signs the divorce papers, which she begs of him. She begs him to severe the final tether holding them together, pleading for the “good guy in there” to do one last thing for her. And that’s if he ever loved her, to let her go.
A new addition to the pantheon of stellar divorce albums, “Gaslighter” is a remarkable feat. It has the core elements that comprise the Chicks’ DNA (fiddle, banjo, three-part harmony) that will satisfy longtime fans while also welcoming a new audience with its pop flare thanks to their first collaboration with pop producer extraordinaire Jack Antonoff, who’s worked with the likes of Taylor Swift, Lorde, and Lana del Rey. The record also proves Maines, Maguire, and Strayer are still the same Chicks from years ago that weren’t afraid to bluntly cut to the heart of the matter, with this record being their most honest yet.
Written by Brooke Luna