There’s one question you’ll be left with after spending some time with Gaslighter, the first album from The Chicks (minus the Dixie now) in 14 years: What the hell happened on Natalie Maines’s boat between her husband and another woman? Whatever is was, the pain of such a terrible breakup is heard on every moment of this terrific record.
The band never even intended to record ‘new’ music.
This was originally planned to be a covers album to complete the requirements for their record contract, but quickly became the most striking statement record of their career.
Not even Taking The Long Way, the Grammy sweeping response to the fallout from their comments on George Bush and the Iraq war in 2003, that led to the entire country music industry boycotting them from radio and airplay for years, comes close to how impactful the music is here.
Opener Gaslighter sets fire to any preconceptions immediately, The Chicks sound still rooted in country, but so much bigger in scale. Working with the inescapable Jack Antonoff, who’s work on albums like Lorde’s Melodrama, Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell and the last three Taylor Swift albums has made for some of the most interesting pop records of the last decade. The timing of new name, first album in decades and new collaborators is heard so well at the top end of the album.
It was track two that had me completely sold though: ‘My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me up, how messed up is that’ is surely one of the best lyrics of the year so far. ‘Sleep At Night’ is a terrific driving force of a song that builds as Natalie’s vocals soar. She’s not only cutting on tracks like this, but so clearly in pain over the end of not only a marriage but a family.
The moments where she talks about her sons and the impact it’ll have on their lives too, on Sleep At Night: ‘But then I think about our two boys trying to become men/There’s nothing funny about that’ and the heart wrenching ‘Young Man’: ‘You’re of me, not mine/Walk your own crooked line/I promise you’ll be fine/Take the best parts of him’. Lyrically, Gaslighter is so brutally honest it could only come from a totally real place.
Elsewhere, there are even more cutting moments. On ‘My Best Friend’s Weddings’, it’s the wedding where they met as well as her friend’s second marriage after the breakup, ‘I’ll still be younger than you, I’m better off without your gloom and your doom’. The opening lyric of ‘Tights On My Boat’ is probably the peak ‘country woman scorned’ moment of the record though: ‘I hope you die peacefully in your sleep. Just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me’ It also leaves you wanting to know even more about what happened on that boat, which is genuinely called ‘The Nautalee’!
You get more of a sense of the new direction the band have gone in. March March is a politically charged call to arms, or call to limit arms to be more accurate. I absolutely love the closing instrumental of this song, thundering drums alongside Martie Maguire’s violin, the most inspiring moment of the record. ‘Julianna Calm Down’ has that same steady build as Sleep At Night, but infused with an Americana guitar instrumentation. ‘Texas Man’ is arguably the closest thing we have here to a classic Chicks era song, like a revamped and charged up pop version of ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’, they just want someone willing to put up with them as they are.
It takes until the closing two songs, ‘Hope It’s Something Good’ and ‘Set Me Free’, for Gaslighter to truly feel like a country album. The most traditional production here, full of steel guitar and harmonies, it closes the record with a sort of redemptive quality, an acceptance of the past and looking for a way forward. It’s why it’s strange to me that these songs feel reflective on the past rather that how current and ‘new’ the rest of the album is.
Words by Sam Atkins.