It has been 14 years since the Chicks — formerly The Dixie Chicks, a name recently changed due to its association with the Confederacy — released their 2006 masterpiece, “Taking the Long Way,” and threw up one of the greatest musical middle fingers ever. In 2020, a lot has changed — the Chicks have a new album, a new name and lead singer Natalie Maines has a newly finalized divorce, which takes center stage in “Gaslighter,” released July 17.
While most of the album confirms that yes, all men are in fact trash — just listen to “Sleep at Night” and “Tights On My Boat” — the Chicks broaden the story and shift the spotlight to Maines’ nonlinear journey through grief and healing after the loss of a long-term relationship. Questions about what to do with 20 years of memories, how to comfort her two children and what to expect out of the years ahead take center stage. These thoughts swirl as the life she knows crumbles around her — again.
The last time it happened was in 2002, after Maines criticized President Bush and the war in Iraq. The Chicks’ world came crashing down as country radio stations boycotted their music and outraged “fans” burned their CDs in the street, insisting the three women “shut up and sing.” In response came “Taking the Long Way,” five Grammy awards and, as cited, the musical equivalent of flipping the bird. If by some stretch of the imagination it wasn’t clear then, it certainly is now — do not mess with the Chicks.
“Gaslighter” is undoubtedly the trio’s most pop album to date, but while music critics debate whether or not a Swift-style genre transition is on its way, true fans remain unbothered, having accepted that Natalie Maines is going to do what Natalie Maines is going to do. Production style aside, fans can still lean into where their love for the band stems — raw, honest lyrics. “Gaslighter” fearlessly tells the stories most of us would leave scribbled in our diaries and stuffed under our beds.
The opening single, for which the album is titled, introduces a self-assured Maines taking control of her own narrative by calling out her ex’s manipulative behavior for what it was — gaslighting. Meanwhile, bandmates Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire lend support with classic Chicks-style harmonies — the kind that are only achieved by best friends who have spent a lifetime having each other's backs.
While some speculate as to whether “Gaslighter” is a shot toward President Donald Trump, whom Maines has repeatedly denounced, the track “March March” is unquestionably political — it manages to reference gun control, climate change, fake news and reproductive rights all at once. Similarly, “For Her,” although not as overt, contains strong calls to action. In a reference to the group’s history of speaking out and paying the price, Maines claims she is, “Not a martyr,” but rather “Just someone who cares,” and calls for listeners to stand up, show up and be kinder in a potential nod to the ever so relevant “Taking the Long Way” track “I Hope.”
When things turn confessional in “Sleep at Night” and “Tights On My Boat,” the Chicks don’t hold back. Their logic? “You're only as sick as your secrets” — and so, they tell everything. Maines recounts numerous betrayals, such as a time when her ex brought his secret girlfriend backstage at one of their shows. And sometimes, she gets petty — because she can — with digs such as “I hope you die peacefully in your sleep / Just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me,” and “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I am done?”
Among the album’s ballads, high in the ranks is “Hope It’s Something Good,” a song that manages to carry the devastation of Dolly Parton’s “Heartbreaker” with the angst of Beyoncé’s “Sandcastles.” Another stand out is “Young Man,” an intimate message from mother to child that is arguably the most old-school-Chicks sounding of the bunch. “Julianna Calm Down” could be interpreted with a similar motherly lens — when Maines sings “Breathe, it’ll be okay,” you believe her.
By the time the final track, “Set Me Free,” arrives, Maines is exhausted, but her message has been heard. Having faced the wildfire, she is ready to go at it alone, but it is evident she won’t have to — there will always be six strong hands on the steering wheel.