The Chicks | Gaslighter | (Columbia)
4.5 out of 5
Since the days of medieval troubadours, songwriters have known nothing feeds the muse like a breakup. Tainted love gave us Rumours, Blood on the Tracks and Blue. Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights and Beck’s Sea Change both chronicled painful spousal splits. But the Chicks’ Natalie Maines was still duking it out in court with her ex, actor Adrian Pasdar, while the trio recorded their first album of new material in 14 years — an album that was supposed to be a bunch of covers, until Maines apparently discovered the infidelity that finally ended their 20-year relationship.
Pasdar tried to halt Gaslighter’s release, citing a prenup confidentiality clause. Maines prevailed, and spares no sordid detail while excoriating him for his behavior. Dressed in pop producer Jack Antonoff’s quirky but intriguing production, the album is an outpouring of raw, visceral emotion, a study in the stages of grief for the death of a marriage.
She comes out kicking on the album-opening title tune, which pumps like power pop with a driving rhythm, undeniable melody and luscious harmonies from sisters Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire. Power’s the operative word here; Maines quickly shifts from vulnerable to venomous with lines like Save your tired stories for your new someone else / Cause they’re lie lie lie lie lies. Then, in one short a cappella break, she shifts back again, quietly admitting, You broke me / Yeah I’m broken.
In “Sleep at Night,” Maines appears to be out for blood as she declares, You’re only as sick as your secrets / So I’m telling everything, delivering her lines with staccato precision matching Strayer’s banjo and what sounds like backward-looped percussion. The song’s production swells, probably more than it needs, before hitting another stripped-down moment, then heading into a big finish. (Among the players on this one are Maines’s younger son, Beckett, on drums, and her dad, Lloyd, on pedal steel.)
Though the Chicks coproduced, it’s obvious they chose Antonoff exactly for what he does on the album’s first three songs — steering them straight into Taylor Swift territory (closing a circle of sorts; they were a huge influence on her, and sang on her last album). The third, “Texas Man,” is another big pop number in which Maines admits she’s ready to get physical again, if she can find someone who can handle a woman “a little bit more traveled.”
The mood changes with their cover of Charlotte Lawrence’s “Everybody Loves You,” a stunner of a ballad on which Maines, cradled by Maguire’s beautiful violin and viola, again confirms she’s one of the most brilliantly nuanced singers in any genre.
The Chicks give full-on gospel treatment to “For Her,” an anthem on which Mikey Freedom Hart’s soulful Wurlitzer groove give way to the dynamic Maguire-Strayer fiddle-and-banjo combo as Maines repeats Stand up show love / Stand up show up / Stand up show love / For Her For Her. That leads to the most overtly political moment on the album, “March March,” in which Maines’s chanted lyrics play against a thumping drumbeat that morphs into Maguire’s searing fiddle solo, then gives way to Maines and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith’s hambone thigh slaps. Strayer jumps in with banjo and dobro, rejoined by Maguire’s fiddle, and as their instruments crescendo together, they evoke not only the hills of Appalachia (and the roots of the Chicks now far-from-country sound) but the restless urge to stand up and march — even as “an army of one.” (The song was inspired by the Chicks’ attendance at the 2018 March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., led by student survivors of the Margery Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.)
The trio subtly evoke girl-group harmonies (specifically, the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love”) on “My Best Friend’s Weddings,” another Pasdar dig Maines turns into one more taut declaration of her power to overcome pain. Narrating the arc of her relationship from meeting Pasdar at Strayer’s wedding to now-ex Charlie Robison to attending Strayer’s next wedding, Maines sings, Yeah she married again / I’ve never seen her look more happy. It’s as much a reminder that she might one day recover happiness, too — which would be the best “fuck you” of all. But first, there’s more dirty divorce laundry to air, via “Tights on My Boat” (the boat being Pasdar’s 42-foot sailboat, named for Maines). Delivered Swift-style, it almost turns into operetta before she’s done.
And then there’s “Julianna Calm Down,” another song that starts off sounding like gentle advice (namechecking Strayer’s and Maguire’s daughters), but turns into an empowerment anthem in which Maines exhorts these young women, while again pep-talking herself, to Put on put on put on your best shoes / And strut the fuck around like you’ve got nothin’ to lose / Show off show off show off your best moves / And do it with a smile so that no one knows it’s / Put on put on put on … I guess this is the time to remind you / Sometimes what’s going through your head / Is just a temporary situation / And light will soon be shed. Its pizzicato finish is a delight.
But they saved the best for last: a trilogy of ballads that pack an incredible wallop. In the first, “Young Man,” Maines tells her firstborn son, Jackson Slade, now 19, not to hate his father or be sad for his mother as he copes with the terrible fracturing of their lives. The delicacy in her sweet soprano, the visceral ache, the heartbreaking hurt she tries to sing away with her love … it’s a beautiful, tear-inducing tour de force. Thankfully, Antonoff pulled back his production on this one, adding only mellotron, bass and acoustic guitar to Strayer’s guitar and elegant dobro, Maguire’s violin and their backing vocals.
“Hope It’s Something Good” flows in the same vein; expressing loss rather than another finger-pointing list of transgressions. And on “Set Me Free,” Maines makes a plaintive plea for release, crying, Just because you’ve been a bad guy / I’ve seen it with my own eyes /There’s a good guy in there / Decency / Would be for you to sign and release me / If you ever loved me / Then will you do this one last thing / Set Me Free.
It’s an arresting finish to an album so full of emotion, it takes a while to absorb it all. It’s not perfect, and it’s not meant to be. But the juxtaposition of slickness and rawness somehow works, making the kind of statement the Chicks have been working toward since they first sang of mattress dancing and offing that unfaithful Earl. On their last album, they stood up for themselves, boldly declaring they were “Not Ready to Make Nice” after the Bush “incident,” and wound up earning five Grammys including Album of the Year. They’ve been through a lot in the 14 years since — Maines’s divorce followed the other Chicks’ splits and remarriages — but they’ve always seemed come out stronger than before whenever they’ve faced travails in the past. With this cleansing, they’re ready to do so again.