Album Review – The (Dixie) Chicks – “Gaslighter”

Man, if the boat of Natalie Maines could talk….

There is so much to distill when simply broaching the subject of the trio formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, it really dissuades one from wanting to start the conversation at all, like speaking politics in mixed company. Even mentioning the name stimulates either jeers and moans, or blind approval and allyship, all based off of factors that have decidedly nothing to do with actual music. Oh, and now we get to devolve into further tangents about the efficacy and motivations behind them changing their name. What joy.

But beyond the history of this band, or the way many fans and media like to use them for what is tantamount to performative art and signaling for social media, there’s actually an album of music out there to regard, and one that happens to be their first original effort in 14 years. But before we get too in depth into the content, let’s lay down a few things that are both patently obvious, and critically important when regarding this new album, Gaslighter.

1) This album is not country. And no, this is not necessarily a criticism or a rebuke of the music on the album itself coming from country “purists” insisting upon strict adherence to the genre. When it comes to the Dixie Chicks, that ship sailed long ago. Was their comeback record with Rick Rubin in 2006 a country joint? No, not really. Was the Natalie Maines solo record? Nope. This one just nails that coffin shut. In fact, this record likely never gets made if anyone insisted it sound country.

As Maines said rather explosively back in 2013, she never even liked country music, and one of the reasons a new Chicks album didn’t materialize earlier is due to not wanting to broach difficult discussions on genre between the trio. Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer were always bluegrass-inspired country musicians. According to Maines, she never was, and simply played the part. Maines has always been sort of the matriarch of the trio. So where she goes, The Chicks go.

But the most important reason to underscore genre is to emphasize once again that it’s not country music that is not ready to make nice with The Chicks, it’s vice versa. The country community is so ready to bury the hatchet and move on from past mistakes, The Chicks were the centerpiece of the 50th Annual CMA Awards in 2016. Country music has its arms stretched out wide, and all The Chicks had to do was make something even just hinting of or adjacent to country to meet that embrace. But apparently, Natalie Maines is not interested.

2) This is a Natalie Maines record. It’s The Chicks in name only. This was the hypothesis that slowly formed from the early hints and songs released from Gaslighter, and listening through the record not only validates this, it underscores it and puts a big fat exclamation point at the end. Gaslighter is all about the breakup of Natalie Maines from actor and husband Adrian Pasdar from bow to stern, and the rest of the boat in between. Maybe some minor interludes make it in here and there, but none that stray from the thematic axis that define Gaslighter‘s core. Again, this is not a criticism necessarily, just an immutable observation.

3) Producer Jack Antonoff is the 2nd most important figure on Gaslighter. Not only is he credited as producer, Antonoff walks away with 9 songwriting credits, and a total of 73 separate instrumental and programming contributions. He is featured far more on the record than Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer combined. By pulling the all-too-common pop producer ruse of insisting upon songwriting credits for compositions, it robs creators of both revenue and artistic valuation, while the way this record came together is downgrading to The Chicks as a collaborative trio of empowered and inspiring women in music who play their own instruments. It’s not that Maguire and Stray contributed nothing. But they should have been featured significantly more, and not have been forced to take a back seat to Antonoff.

Whether Jack Antonoff’s involvement in this record should be considered quality or subpar is the realm of those more qualified to rule on pop music instead of country. But the assuaging of melody for rhythmic bits looped and filtered through 1’s and 0’s once again insults the beauty and uniqueness that made The Chicks so valuable and important in their heyday. Antonoff’s heavy hand once again emphasizes how Gaslighter is a Natalie Maines solo record made by a pop producer, and that’s what you should expect.

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But shove all of those worthy concerns and criticisms aside, and believe it or not, Gaslighter actually impresses in one turn after another, and surprisingly so after the initial songs released ahead of the record felt so acrid, angry, and disappointing. Frankly, it’s stunning how much Maines is able to open up about such severely personal matters, put emotions and moments into words, and do what she rarely does through her often thorny public persona—show vulnerability, fear, and doubt, and even a measure of forgiveness to go along with venting anger at what are revealed the be very valid frustrations.

Gaslighter is so centered around the split from Natalie’s ex-husband, it may even be fair to characterize the record as conceptualized in the way the story unfolds in chronological order. Maybe you start with some cursory knowledge that Maines divorced her husband a few years ago, but you end up by the conclusion with every major detail of the relationship arc, from meeting him at the wedding of Emily Erwin and Charlie Robison in 1999, to how Maines moved to California to help forward his acting career, then spent nearly 20 years together raising children, to what we’ll just call the “boat” incident, where articles of clothing—including a pair of tights that get their own song—reveal the infidelity that eventually doomed the relationship.

Maines even goes into details like meeting the adulterer before the affair, and then having a conversation with the adulterer’s husband on the phone. Yes, awkward, and crazy. But as Maines says, it’s sad when you have two boys to raise, and you realize how all of this will affect them.

Of course, there’s two sides to every story. But you only need to make it halfway through Gaslighter before you find the anger found on the early tracks released from the record as justified, while empathy and a sincere connection with the story swells in the listener, facilitated not just by the saucy and seductive specifics Maines shares, but the smartness and genuineness of the songwriting in numerous turns.

The aftermath of the marriage might be where Gaslighter becomes its most emotional and resonant. Natalie explaining to her son just as he comes of age about the sins of his father in “Young Man,” then the reluctant, but reasoning moments when you know a relationship is over in “Hope It’s Something Good,” or the pleadings in “Set Me Free” to allow the split to be finalized via the divorce papers, it’s all laid out here, and in inspired lyrical eloquence.

Though the Jack Antonoff production is easy and fair to second guess, you’re also pleasantly surprised at the level of straightforwardness, and roots-based intimacy in moments, especially in the final songs on the record where Antonoff gets out of the way, and lets Maines tell her story, and convey the emotions of heavy moments without all the meeps, tings, and clicks looping around in the background, distracting you from the narrative in the foreground.

Where Gaslighter most falters is when it veers of the Natalie Maines divorce script. “March March” is sort of the de facto political song on the record, though it has some ties to the greater narrative. Not only is it the low point for the Antonoff production (even though it features the most instrumentation from Maguire and Strayer as any track), it struggles to make its point. “Everybody Loves You” might be one of the best performances from Maines on the record, and one of the most rootsy. But it’s also the only song she and the rest of the trio didn’t write, making it feel a little orphaned in the chronology and plot. And though the harmonies of the trio have their moments like in “Hope It’s Something Good,” it’s so little compared to what it should be. There’s ample opportunity to let all three women shine, and it’s rarely taken.

And it’s a shame that such an inspired and well-written effort is wasted on a very spotty production performance with little semblance to country. What is a better subject matter for a major country music comeback record than a scandalous divorce? Many of the songs of Gaslighter are country songs, they’re just rendered otherwise by Antonoff.

But country music has just as much itself to blame as Natalie Maines and The Chicks for how things turned out. In that relationship, country was the one leaving their pants on the boat. But as Gaslighter concludes with Maines requesting an apology from her once husband, it’s frustrating and disappointing she seems to take no interest in accepting the one coming from country music. It’s a shame, because Gaslighter the country version could have been great. And it still is pretty great for what it is, which is adult contemporary pop.

Many will hate this record because it’s not country. Many will hate it for what Natalie Maines said some 17 years ago now, and turned out to be right about. And most of the media has already overlooked what makes Gaslighter so important as they look to re-litigate past grievances and compose politically-tinged click bait headlines, missing the message of the music. And everyone should miss Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer not making more meaningful contributions, though they are given co-writes on most of the compositions.

But put all the baggage aside and Gaslighter is a good, inspired, well-written, and moderately-produced pop record for adults. It’s probably unfair to judge it as country because it isn’t. But as music, it’s better than most of the pop out there, and better than much of the women-fronted pop that ends up on country radio. Because ultimately, music is a about telling stories in compelling ways that connect with us. And despite all its flaws, Gaslighter accomplishes this, and better than most.

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3.5/10 (as a country record)
7.5/10 (as a pop record)

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