Arts album review

The Chicks discover liberation in divorce

14 years since their previous record, passions run high in new album

A lot has changed since the country music trio Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer, and Martie Maguire of The Chicks (formerly The Dixie Chicks) released their last album Taking the Long Way in 2006. Their newest record, Gaslighter, is based on lead singer Maines’ divorce last year from a 19-year marriage. Indeed, Gaslighter feels lived through with its consistently strong and moving vocals and instrumentals. Here is my track-by-track take.

The opening track teases what went wrong in Maines’ marriage with various forms of the word “lie” repeating throughout the song. “Gaslighter” is just that: a teaser to set up the conflict to be addressed by the rest of the album. For example, the second verse hints at something transpiring on a boat, but does not give any details, leaving the mystery unresolved until the eighth song on the album, “Tights On My Boat.” 

This song showcases the strongest vocal harmonies on the record with its chorus, highlighting an anger unparalleled elsewhere on the album. The verses are more stripped-down to focus on the story behind Maines’ divorce, though my favorite part of the song will always be the raw emotion on the bridge as Maines sings: “I'm your mirror / Standin’ right here until you can see how you broke me.”

Sleep at Night
This song has my favorite line on the whole album (“My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me up / How messed up is that?”) and begins with a killer drum and banjo intro. (A close runner-up is “Remember you brought her to our show at the Hollywood Bowl / She said, ‘I love you, I’m such a fan’ / I joked that you can love me as long as you don’t love my man / There’s nothin’ funny about that.”) 

Unlike “Gaslighter,” pain overpowers rage as the primary emotion of this track. Maines questions how her husband is able to sleep at night or even look her in the eyes knowing that he’s been having an extramarital affair. This is the first song of three (along with “Julianna Calm Down” and “Young Man”) on the album that emphasize Maines’ concern for their children having to deal with a chaotic family life (“But then I think about our two boys trying to become men / There’s nothing funny about that”).

Texas Man
This track has a marked tonal shift, liberating listeners from the heaviness of the first two songs, and finds Maines musing on being single. She comments on her needs of having someone willing to sleep with her despite the fact that she’s not exactly “top market” or a “new model.”

With this being my favorite song on this record, there comes a great responsibility to remain as objective as possible. Scratch that. It’s probably the greatest song of 2020. This song speaks of how the way to the singer’s heart is through her mind, which, honestly, as a Texan man myself, who’s to disagree? 

There is a twangy, upbeat feeling to the entire song, and I absolutely love the string instrumentals before the bridge. Overall, the song’s composition and production exude a sexual passion that disguises the singer’s desperation and despair, something rarely explored in other physical intimacy songs.

Everybody Loves You
The first ballad on the album packs an emotional punch straight to the gut. I commend the concerto-level string instrumentals prior to the song’s outro, which gave me proper time to shed some tears. 

Maines wonders why she is alone when it comes to hating her ex-husband while everyone else seems to love him. She bemoans how she now has to lie to comfort herself in order to sleep at night, a kind of hypocrisy that contrasts with the message in “Gaslighter” and “Sleep At Night.”

She repeats the phrase “it’s my body,” showcasing her struggling to cope with what she viscerally feels despite everyone else seemingly knowing better and telling her how she should feel. The song has a strong closing statement to all these people: “Do they know that I regret you? / Do they know I shouldn’t have to?”

For Her
My review of this track will be relatively short, because it’s one of those songs best listened to in silence, letting the emotions just wash over you. I adore how the production and harmonies escalate over the course of the song’s five-and-a-half minute length while always giving room for Maines’ emotive voice to shine. Lyrically, this ballad is a song of encouragement to her younger self and to all other girls going through rough times.

March March
There’s an interesting contrast between the battlefield atmosphere of the music, created by a steady bass drum in the production, and the lyrical content of this song, which criticizes the government’s inaction over issues like gun violence or school shootings. The song references the Trump administration’s various failures from its insensitivity over women’s rights to attacks on journalism. The Chicks have never held back on political views, and this song’s message is certainly an important one.

The only qualm I have is that in the context of a divorce record, the song seems thematically dissonant. Regardless, I can’t think of anywhere else the track would fit, or when would be a more appropriate time to release it, so I’m happy with it being on this album.

My Best Friend’s Weddings
I love parallelism in songwriting, and this song takes it to the next level. Maines sings about being at the same best friend’s two different weddings many years apart . At this first wedding, she meets her husband who she gradually comes to realize she’s better off without. Then, she sings though she can “see a wildfire comin’ / Burnin’ the world I know,” she has become stronger with dealing with loss and that her ex-husband should “Watch me, watch me outrun it / Take what I need and go.” Finally, at the end of the song, she returns to the second wedding, concluding that “Guess from ashes, we can really grow,” adding that she’s willing to go this path alone, showing Maines’ growth since her own divorce.

Tights On My Boat
This track is the sassiest and shadiest song on the record, and I am living for it. Maines constantly reverses upon her statements for sarcastic effect, such as starting off the first verse by wishing her man to die “peacefully” in his sleep before going back and saying “Just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me.” I adore the stripped-down acoustic guitar over the simple pre-chorus and chorus, which respectively repeat “And you can tell the girl who left her tights on my boat / That she can have you now” and “You’re gonna get what you got comin’ to ya.” 

This song also has prominent spoken portions that jab at the singer’s ex-lover. For instance, in reference to the refrain in the pre-chorus, Maines coos, “Yeah, you can call her right now / And tell her that she can have you right now,” acknowledging that although she’s not speaking most of her insults, those that are sung shouldn’t be taken any less seriously.

Julianna Calm Down
The song is a breakup song, but its concept is refreshing, written as an instruction manual for the band members’ daughters for what they should do if a man ever breaks their hearts. Indeed, the song calls out each of Strayer’s and Maguire’s daughters by name. My favorite line is in the chorus, which involves wordplay between putting on clothes and putting on a fake smile to conceal grief: “So just put on, put on, put on your best shoes / … / 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.”

The production begins as a solo organ in the backing track, gradually layering to add percussion, melodica, banjo, and strings. This provides an escalating feeling that empowers listeners, reflecting how one may emerge stronger after going through a difficult breakup. However, the production remains relatively simple and never overwhelms Maines’ powerful vocals.

Young Man
Musically, this song is the most “country” of anything else on the record: the backing track consists largely of acoustic guitar and strings with few other flourishes thrown in. This song is the final song on the record that references the band members’ children, and as I’ve come to expect by now, it is a moving one. 

It’s written like a love ballad but is for Maines’ sons whom she commends for having to grow up and become men amidst a fiery divorce. It’s a tearjerker for sure, with Maines telling her sons in the chorus that while she has done her best to support them, they should live without having to suffer as she did: “Young man / Take a good look at my life and / Try to understand / …my blues aren't your blues / It's up to you.”  This chorus may also reference Neil Young’s folk song “Old Man,” which contains the line “Old man take a look at my life / I’m a lot like you.” 

Hope It’s Something Good
Whereas previous tracks have shown more of the rage or despondency in Maines’ divorce, the penultimate song shows a softer side. It shows Maines trying all sorts of ways to pass the time and distract herself from reality. She addresses issues of being too scared to speak up in a toxic relationship, but simultaneously expresses regret for the years she spent under the illusion that she found her life partner. Every chorus swells in the harmony, adding not merely incredible sonic but also emotional depth.

Ultimately, though, the song sees Maines finding closure, singing at the conclusion of the song, “If you're gone / I hope it’s really worth it / … / Thought you'd found your better half / I hope she’s something good,” the final “she” of course referencing the girl with whom her husband cheated.

Set Me Free
The final track of the song has unremarkable production, which I mean in the best way possible. There is little except a simple guitar, cello, and ukulele backing track to accompany Maines’ soaring emotion. This song is a perfect closer, wrapping up much of the conflict set up through the rest of the album, with Maines admitting how “exhausting” it is to hate her husband. 

For the first time on the record, she recognizes that maybe the marriage wasn’t all bad in the pre-chorus: “Just because you've been a bad guy / I've seen it with my own eyes / There's a good guy in there.” The song concludes with Maines begging her soon-to-be-ex-husband to sign the divorce papers already and set her free, if only for the sake of “decency.”

Although, sonically, one may argue whether the album is “country” with its production ranging from rock to fully stripped down, there is little debate that Gaslighter is a solid record with lots to say.