The trio's first album since 2006 puts a microscope on emotion.

By Maura Johnston
July 13, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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Credit: Robin Harper

A lot has happened since the Chicks put out their last full-length, 2006’s Grammy-winning Taking the Long Way — particularly in pop and country, the two genres that Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines, and Emily Strayer have melded to critical acclaim and commercial success. EDM and bro country had bubble moments; artists like Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, and Cam blazed their own trails through Nashville; TikTok helped shepherd catchy hits from left field to the mainstream; female artists all over the musical map made plain that not only were they not ready to make “nice” with the business, they weren’t all too interested in doing so, either; and the band officially dropped “Dixie” from their name.

The trio’s choice of this pop-musical period, defined by the unexpected and the outspoken, to release their eighth album, Gaslighter, represents some fortuitous timing, even as it was prefaced by tabloid headlines about Maines’ divorce and having its release pushed to the summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Texas-spawned group helped plant the seeds for the current moment with their unwillingness to shrink from criticism; their music had always hybridized country’s harmonies and storytelling with pop’s slick hooks, and their more recent collaborations with Beyoncé and Taylor Swift proved that their approach to music-making resonated decades after their founding.

Gaslighter opens with the title track, a poison-pen letter to an ex whose ungrateful nature is matched only by his awful behavior: “Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat/And boy, that’s exactly why you ain’t comin’ home,” Maines sings over brisk acoustic guitars, before repeating the word “lie” in a way that makes it a singsong chant: “They’re lie- lie-lie-lie-aaas,” she belts, with Maguire and Strayer coming in to offer backup on the chorus. It’s a neat snapshot of what the Chicks do best; the details about Hollywood dreams and boat betrayals might be borrowed from real life — the boat does, in fact, resurface — but the sentiments about bad-news exes are relatable enough that any listeners will be la-la-ing, or lie-lie-ing, along.

Credit: Columbia

Much of Gaslighter puts a microscope on emotion, and the spare production and sheer power of Maines’ voice make each sentiment acutely felt. “Everybody Loves You” is a devastating portrait of post-breakup anomie, with Maines’ quivering soprano and Maguire’s weeping strings at its center. “For Her” is an elegy for love that, for whatever reason, just didn’t work, as Maines muses on past injuries over a Wurlitzer (played by producer Jack Antonoff ) until her frustrations swell in concert with banjos and strings: “Why can’t we be together?/Why can’t we love for her?” she yelps, her voice cracking as a choir hovers nearby, echoing her. It’s a gorgeous update of stretched-out ’70s folk-rock, while the sparkling “Young Man” extends a helping hand to a boy whose heart had been broken “just as [he] came of age,” Maines’ soaring vocal and Maguire’s swooping violin providing comfort in tandem.

Which isn’t to say it’s all serious business. On “Texas Man,” a propulsive chronicle of regaining post-split sea legs, Maines notes that she’s “a little bit more traveled” than others on the dating scene. Meanwhile, the loose, chatty “Tights on My Boat” (that boat?) opens with a jaw-dropper — ”I hope you die peacefully in your sleep/Just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me” — that the cruelties detailed in the rest of it more than justify.

The Chicks worked on Gaslighter with some top-rate songwriters; in addition to Antonoff, who co- produced the album with the trio and contributed musical parts to each song, A-listers like Julia Michaels, Justin Tranter, and Ariel Rechtshaid have credits. While there are a few nods to recent pop tropes here and there — the accusatory “Sleep at Night” adds gang-chorus vocals to its mix; the sardonic “March March” pairs Maines’ winking asides about sinking cities with programmed drums — what makes Gaslighter work so well is the centering of the Chicks’ strengths.

Amid the restless banjos and ghostly harmonies of “Hope It’s Something Good,” Maines sings, “After so long I learned to hold my tongue/And now that you’re done I get to write this song,” her voice mixing defiance with resignation. Maines and her bandmates took the floor at just the right time. By blending early-21st-century pop savvy with the storytelling that made country music so crucial to the American canon, Gaslighter is all fire and nerve, performed by three women whose musical bona fides are rivaled only by their rock-solid backbones.

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