Album Review: The (Dixie) Chicks - Gaslighter
Gaslighter is an album about a boat.
No. That isn’t entirely true. But a boat plays a major role in it.
Gaslighter is a ‘divorce record.’
No. Well, yes. It is. But it’s about more than that, and it simply is more than that.
Gaslighter is a contractual obligation1.
Yes. The band formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, and now known as ‘The Chicks,’ were very candid in a recent NPR interview, stating the impetus for the album, their fifth for Sony Music (and eighth overall2), was originally their 2016 ‘reunion’3 tour, as well as their desire to deliver the final album (and first in 14 years) in order to complete their contract, initially signed as a ‘long term’ deal over 22 years ago.
Once slated for a May release, Gaslighter was among the countless albums delayed due to the pandemic, or ‘dat rona,’ as I have casually, and maybe a little callously, called it since it became a concern so many months ago. In March, prior to the world more or less unraveling, the new group photo released alongside the announcement of the album, as well as its first single (and the titular track), featured the three ‘Chicks,’ all wearing pink gas masks, holding Statue of Liberty torches; at the time it just seemed kind of edgy, but now, it comes across like a terrible premonition, slightly exaggerated, of what was on the horizon.
Rescheduled for a July release date, and by then the group reevaluated the origins of its name4—much like Fiona Apple’s blistering Fetch The Bolt Cutters, issued within the first four weeks5 of the pandemic, Gaslighter is the album that we need right now. It’s an exciting, brazen, colorful, brutally honest, and heartbreaking blend of what you might, even after this long, expect from a record by the group you once knew as the Dixie Chicks, but effortlessly blended together with the slick, intelligent modern exuberance of pop impresario Jack Antonoff, known for his diverse body of production and co-writing work alongside Adele, Taylor Swift, St. Vincent, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Lana Del Ray.
Gaslighter is about a lot of things—it’s about a boat; specifically, what happened on said boat. It’s about divorce. It’s about getting older, and about hoping you’ve done the best you can with the children you’ve raised. It also, in the end, is a reflection (at times, a harsh one) on the world that we have spent the last four years living in.
The line between pop and country has, at least for the last 30 years, been a blurry one. While what is considered ‘country’ now6 is much more bombastic in sound than anything from the 1990s, or even into the early 2000s, but retrospectively, it is now easy to see, but also easy to get lost in, the places where the two genre tags of categories have almost always overlapped.
Beginning with the Dixie Chicks’ major label debut—1998’s Wide Open Spaces, even though it was arranged with all the elements of the ‘contemporary country’ sound popular at the time, you can hear the pop music sensibilities within the songwriting, specifically the enormous, sing-a-long refrains to the album’s titular track, as well as on the other memorable singles “I Can Love You Better Than That” and “There’s Your Trouble.”
So it makes sense that, over 20 years after their breakthrough release, and 14 years after their previous album, the politically charged Taking The Long Way, the group would enlist, and collaborate with, Antonoff, who as a writer and producer, finds the way to bring out the best within the artist he’s working with; specifically this time out with The Chicks, he has found a way to seamlessly merge the ‘twang’ embedded within the group’s trademark, or expected, along with the flourishes and aesthetics of modern pop music, as well as the spaces that form when the two converge.
My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me up—how messed up is that?
Gaslighter is a record about something that happened on a boat; it’s also about a divorce. It’s also about more than these two things—both of which are connected, but the divorce, specifically the divorce of Chicks lead vocalist Natalie Maines, serves as the overall conceit, or through line, for the record. The group, and Antonoff, have almost immaculately structured the album’s 12 tracks so that the narrative is not the focus of every song, allowing listeners not so much a moment of respite from such a serious theme, but allowing the album to explore other topics.
The opening track—“Gaslighter,” wastes literally no time setting the narrative, serving as a bit of a thesis statement for what’s to come. It’s a bold, highly energetic song, opening with the familiar, tight harmonies coming from Maines, Emily Strayer, and Martie Maguire, before the rest of the instrumentation slowly tumbles into the steady, strong rhythm, building itself up over the course of the song.
What is a ‘gaslighter?’
In recent years, it’s a word that’s entered the collective lexicon, but it’s a word I first heard when I was a child, after my mother had watched the film Gaslight—an adaption of the 1938 play of the same name7, written by Patrick Hamilton. The expression, to ‘gaslight’ someone, is most easily described as “A psychological manipulator who seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a group, making them question their own memory, perception or sanity.”
While there can be some minor political context written in between the lines of the song, it is, very blatantly about Maines’ divorce from actor Adrian Pasdar, after almost 20 years of marriage. It’s an angry song, and rightfully so, but it’s also brilliantly executed, dressed up with an infectious refrain, and arranged in such a way subtly introduces the more contemporary ‘pop’ elements against the more ‘traditional’ instrumentation of the acoustic guitar, fiddle, and banjo.
And as fun, and bright, as it sounds, there’s also a specific musical moment that occurs, and it has to do with the way the vocals and music blend together—it’s in the line, “Gaslighter, you broke me. You’re sorry but where’s my apology?”—and it’s tough to really describe, even after so many years of writing so many pieces that talk about evocative imagery and shimmery guitar tones, but there’s something that happens within the way all of the elements come together, and this sensation that hits you—hard—right in that moment is so fucking gorgeous.
The album’s conceit continues, very directly, in the second track, “Sleep at Night,” which is slightly less angry, a little more accusatory, and reveals a lot more about the complexities of and concerns stemming Maines’ divorce, specifically regarding her two children and how this—having a deplorable father figure in their lives—will impact them as they enter into adulthood.
“My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me up—how messed up is that,” Maines asks, in “Sleep at Night”’s first verse, and while there is a bit of shock, and a bit of humor, to the line, she follows it up with the serious repercussions: “I think about our tow boys trying to become men. There’s nothing funny about that.”
The tumultuous end of Maines’ marriage, as well as the importance of her family—and the idea of ‘family,’ in general—is the focus of Gaslighter’s second half, which opens with the introspective “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” which details the beginning of Maines’ relationship to Pasdar, whom she met at the first wedding of bandmate Strayer. “There was somethin’ about you—you set off fireworks that evening with a flicker of untruth,” Maines reflects in the song’s first verse. “Jump twenty years, lookin’ back in retrospect—I was never safe…you’d torch me any chance you’d get.”
“My Best Friend’s Wedding” is also one of the album’s more triumphant, powerful moments, both musically, and lyrically, with Maines reflecting on her own growth—“Strangest thing not having you here with me; then I realized that I prefer my own company to yours anytime”—along with Strayer’s own second marriage, and the hopeful feeling that comes from starting again: “I’m back here at my best friend’s wedding—yeah, she married again. I’ve never seen her look so happy. Guess from ashes we can really grow.”
It’s fascinating that the album opens with such a bombastic statement, because as it continues, it really turns itself inward, with the final three songs being the most pensive, and the most personal, with “Young Man” perhaps being the most heartbreaking.
With a surprising co-writing credit from Antonoff’s collaborator Annie Clark8, “Young Man” finds Maines attempting to reconcile how difficult it was to explain her divorce to her oldest son. “I had no words for you that Saturday as we both watched our entire worlds change,” she sings in the song’s opening line. “Your hero fell just as you came of age—and I had no words, but now I know what to say.” Is it emotionally manipulative—yes. Is the song itself sung, and arranged with the
‘traditional’ balladry of country music in mind—also, yes. But it works. Maines’ pained vocals, especially the way she pleads for the best in the refrain (the lyric “My blues aren’t your blues” is very difficult to hear) is heartbreaking, and it is one of the most unguarded, honest moments on the record. Unhidden by the humor the group uses in other songs, it shows the other side of what happens in divorce—after the anger, there is anguish.
“Hope it’s Something Good” begins within the anguish, but as Maines’ reflects on her two decades of marriage, the song finds her ruminating in regret, mourning the end of her relationship.
“There I go trying to keep myself distracted,” she sings in the opening line, over minimal, but lush, instrumentation. “So I make the bed, call a friend, do the dishes—should I have known? Should I have seen a sign?” That regret, then turns not so much to bitterness, but to a very visceral hurt that only comes from something like this. “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 album ends, though, with a juxtaposition of what I can’t be called hopefulness, but with the desire to simply move on, as difficult emotionally and logistically, as that can be. “Set Me Free,” as you can glean from the title, is a final plea from Maines to Pasdar. Their divorce, as depicted throughout this record and finalized at the end of 2019, seems incredibly messy to say the least, and with lines like, “You’ve taken enough from me—untangle me from your lifeline. Why not just set me free”—even with the soothing harmonies of Maines, Strayer, and Maguire, and the warm sounding vibraphone from Antonoff, Gaslighter concludes with no solid resolution. There are no easy answers when an album gets this personal and cathartic. It’s a heartbreaking way to end the album, and a far cry from the enormity of its opening moment—but there is no other way for this story to end.
While the second half of Gaslighter really focuses on the narrative of Maines’ painful divorce, there are moments that move away from that slightly, providing additional depth to the scope of the album. “Texas Man,” arriving early on the album’s first side, is the first switch in tone, and it comes after a double shot of the album’s conceit. Musically, it boasts some of the highest energy on the record, backed by strummed and muted acoustic guitars, giving it a twangy shuffle that continues to build as the other instrumentation is introduced.
It breaks the narrative in the sense that it’s a somewhat unexpected pop-driven love song, but it also is, perhaps unintentionally so, a reflection on growing older, and what that means as you try to meet someone new—Maines is in her mid-40s, as is Strayer; Maguire is 50. “Everybody wants top market; I’m a little bit unraveled,” Maines sings in the song’s sunny refrain. “Everybody wants the new model—I’m a little bit more traveled…If I’m not too much for you, then sign me up.” It also is one of the few moments of sensuality on the album, albeit a bit of a tongue in cheek, coy one, as Maines coos in the song’s second verse: “Been way too long since somebody’s boy kept me up all night. Yeah—that good kind of keeping me up.”
Gaslighter from beginning to end is an impressive album, though I never alleged it was a perfect of a flawless album, and the album’s two additional singles (issued prior to the official release) are not the weakest points on the record, but they are among the most uneven moments—strangely enough, uneven on their own, as singles, but within the context of the album as a whole, they surprisingly, are more palatable.
Released as the album’s second single, around the time Gaslighter was delayed from May to July, “Juliana Calm Down,” is fun and vibrant, and there’s something surprising and delightful about Maines commanding the listener to put on their best shoes and “strut the fuck around like” they’ve got nothing to lose, but its vibrancy is dressed up in a playful arrangement that doesn’t match the rest of the album’s tone. Similarly, the dark, ‘ripped from the headlines’ aesthetic of “March March,” released as the album’s third single in conjunction with the group changing its name (and picking a new street date for the album) attempts to make a powerful statement about gun violence, school shootings, and old, white, male politicians who do nothing to stop it—but there’s something about it that doesn’t exactly land the way it was intended.
Gaslighter is an album about a boat, and it’s alluded to in the titular track, when Maines sneers in the song’s second verse, “Boy you know exactly what you did on my boat. And boy that’s exactly why you ain’t coming home.” And the idea of ‘another woman’ is introduced in "Sleep at Night” in a number of places—but the audacity of Padsar’s infidelities are revealed in the fittingly titled “Tights on My Boat,” placed early on the album’s second half.
Musically, “Tights on My Boat” occupies the same somewhat sparse, acoustic instrumentation that “Texas Man” does. Though, here, it is a lot less buoyant in its presentation, and eases itself into a mid-tempo, strongly strummed groove. Like, a really playful but very slinky groove. It’s also the song that cuts the deepest with its lyrics—with Maines using as much humor as she can to partially deflect the hurt. It is, I suppose, where the cavalcade of emotions that run throughout the album, from beginning to end, converge; or at least are circling each other as the song literally spirals into a borderline hypnotic ending.
“I hope you die peacefully in your sleep,” the song begins—not even attempting to mask the contempt. “Just kidding—I hope it hurts like you hurt me.” Then, shortly after that, “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I am done?” But the contempt quickly gives way to the real pain Maines has carried around for years—“You came to visit me on tour and you made me cry. Wouldn’t speak to me for weeks and now I know why.”
Gaslighter is an album about a boat, and it’s about the girl who left her tights on the boat owned by Maines, which is how Pasdar, seemingly in the end, was caught in the affair he was having. “You can tell the girl who left her tights on my boat that she can have you now,” Maines grits in a portion of the song’s refrain, before entering into the song’s mantra: “You’re gonna get what you got comin’ to ya.”
And for as restrained, musically speaking, as “Tights on My Boat” is, it is one of the album’s clearest moments of tension and release, specifically as it careens into its ending, with Maines bending her voice, and her words, into otherworldly places, creating an unsetting, mesmeric effect, leaning further and further into dissonance with both the icy, creeping strings from Maguire, and specifically with the way Maines descends into repeating “get what you got comin,’” barely taking a breath before she begins the line again, bringing the song to its sudden ending.
Maines, Maguire, and Strayer are credited as co-writers on 10 of the 12 tracks on the Gaslighter, sharing many of those credits with Antonoff—a drastic change from the liner notes to Wide Open Spaces, where Strayer and Maguire are credited on one song only, out of the 12. However, the album’s finest moment, and most emotionally devastating moment, which comes within its first half, is not a ‘Chicks’ original—it’s a cover of a 2018 song written, in part, by 20 year old singer and songwriter Charlotte Lawrence.
Released on her EP Young, there is not a lot of information about the meaning behind “Everybody Loves You.” It isn’t annotated on Genius, and a website that reviewed Lawrence’s EP upon its release believes the song is about sexual assault; Lawrence’s original, mostly performed on a piano with a few electronic flourishes underneath, is chilly, desperate, and haunting.
Sequenced on Gaslighter after the playful sensuality of “Texas Man,” the ‘Chicks’ arrangement of “Everybody Loves You” arrives as a stark juxtaposition in emotion and tone. It is, also, the song that, upon my first listen of the album, stopped me in my tracks, and knocked the wind out of me. I believed Gaslighter was going to be a great and important album—I was just not aware of the gravity the album was capable of until I heard “Everybody Loves You.”
Set around plaintive acoustic guitar plucks, and a cavernous sounding piano, as the emotion and tension within the song builds, as does the instrumentation, with the addition of Strayer on the banjo, and Maguire adding viola and violin; this version of the song, and perhaps its the way it is structured with primarily restrained acoustic instrumentation as opposed to the slick undertones of the original, but it also appears to be paced just a little bit slower, with the vocals growing more powerful and emotional as things reach their peak.
“Everybody Loves You,” is, in a word, beautiful. And it’s the most captivating moment on the record. But it’s also difficult to hear because it is, quite literally, too much. Even with the minimal arranging, it’s the kind of song that is borderline emotionally manipulative, and you cannot help but be swept up in it. And lyrically, before I had even read a theory regarding what it was about, there is a dark, unsettling feeling throughout the lyrics, especially in the refrain: “It’s my body and I’m trying to hate you ‘cause I want to.” But there are upsetting moments throughout, specifically the unrelenting stream of lyrics in the first verse: “I try not to talk about it. I’m too made. I’m too late. I’m too gentle. It’s too hard to explain–I’m not helpful.”
And even though “Everybody Loves You” does not directly connect to the narrative of the album, there is a chilling final line that brings the song to a close that lingers long after Gaslighter has progressed into its next track: “Do they know that I regret you? Do they know I shouldn’t have to?”
Despite owing their label a final album, per their contract, the (Dixie) Chicks, as a group, are among those artists who do not owe its fanbase anything. After their political fallout in the early 2000s, and their critically revered comeback in 2006, save for an occasional tour, the group did not need to reconvene and record a new album. We, at this point, need the Chicks more than they need us.
Based on the advance singles—specifically “Gaslighter” and “Juliana Calm Down,” as well as working directly with Jack Antonoff as a collaborator—I was anticipating this album to be some kind of huge pop statement. It is, to an extent, a more contemporary pop oriented album than anything else the group has done up to this point, but the further along you get into Gaslighter, the Chicks penchant for country (or pop country?) is still very apparent, and definitely welcome. As a co-writer, multi-instrumentalist, and collaborator, Antonoff’s arranging with the group is tight and sounds incredible—the Chicks vocals, especially their harmonies, are still superb, even after this long; and even when the album falters slightly at times, it never truly slows down its momentum, or its messages. Rarely does an album walk the line between fun, bombast, and heartbreak so tastefully and effortlessly—but Gaslighter pulls it off gracefully.
Gaslighter is an album about a lot of things—and it is a lot of things. It’s about a boat and a divorce. It’s about the awful, dizzying array of emotions that come after separation. It’s about getting older, and about hoping you’ve done the best you can with the children you’ve raised. It also, in the end, is a reflection (at times, a harsh one) on the world that we have spent the last four years living in.
But it’s also about empowerment, and somewhere in there, it’s about the faint glimmers of hope that keep us going. It’s about strutting the fuck around like you’ve got nothing to lose and right now, that kind of unabashed fearless attitude is one of the things we need the most.
1- Just a quick aside that didn’t seem like it could be shoehorned into the review so early on, but another really great ‘divorce’ record/contractual obligation is Here, My Dear, by Marvin Gaye. Originally he was going to literally phone in an album with half of the royalties going to his estranged wife; however, once in the studio, the project took on a life of its own and it turned into a commercial and critical failure at the time—a sprawling double LP that eventually develop a cult following with critics appreciating it after his death.
2. It’s easy to forget that the Dixie Chicks recorded three independent albums with a different line up, prior to Maines joining the group.
3. The group really never broke up; after the fall out from Maines’ comments about George W. Bush and the Iraq War in the early 2000s, the success of the documentary Shut Up and Sing, and their ‘comeback’ album, Taking The Long Way, the group would tour sporadically, but also took a lot of time to raise their respective families.
4. So, the group opted to drop the ‘Dixie’ from their name during the racial tensions at the end of May and into June—shortly after the country group Lady Antebellum attempted to change its name, only to change it to ‘Lady A,’ which is the stage name of a woman (a black woman, no less) who has been performing blues in the Pacific Northwest for decades. In the NPR interview that also mentions their contractual obligation to Sony, the group mentions they never really liked the name “Dixie Chicks”—Maguire and Strayer came up with the name when they were teenagers, and as they got older, and the group became more established, all three members expressed their discomfort with the name, and what the word ‘Dixie’ represented. They looked at recent events as the ‘final straw’ with what they already felt, and wanted to change as a way to ‘meet this moment.’ Is ‘The Chicks’ degrading towards women? I don’t know. It’s not a great nam, either, truthfully.
5. Because of the way time ‘works’ now, January and February literally seem like a lifetime ago; Fiona Apple released Fetch The Bolt Cutters in April, and that was like three months ago, and at that point we were only a month or so into a pandemic—but damn, that also seems like much much longer ago than it really is.
6. I don’t understand a lot about modern country music. I know that it can be very ‘bro’ heavy, and kind of obnoxious in its aesthetic. The only modern country album I have listened to is by Sam Hunt, and I meant to write a review of it, because it’s a really effortless blend of pop, country, and Top 40 style rap, but, you know, writing isn’t easy and sometimes time gets away from you.
7. Point of clarification—the play, for some reason, when performed in America, is called Angel Street.
8. You know, St. Vincent.