Review Summary: After a 14 year wait, the holy trinity of country music return to inspire and astound all over again.
Fourteen years is a long time. A really long time. When Taking the Long Way
came out, I was eight years old. I just moved (again) into a new apartment with my step-dad. When my mom would sing “The Long Way Around” with me, I was too young to understand its relevance. My dad loved the band equally, and would often blast the same song out the windows on our road trips to Florida. The album remains one of the few things that still links them in my mind. Jump fourteen years. As the newly christened “The Chicks” release their follow-up, I just graduated from college and now live on the other side of the country. Gaslighter
stands to be just as important to me as that album was then.
Despite the highly politicized images that surrounded its marketing, the record is a remarkably personal release. From top to bottom, the album reels from lead singer Natalie Maines’ messy, contentious divorce with the titular Gaslighter, actor and husband of twenty years Adrian Pasdar. While countless albums in the past have covered the same thematic ground, few have done so with the emotional clarity and narrative strength of this work. From the vengeful opener “Gaslighter” to “Set Me Free,” a pleading closer with just an ounce of hope and goodwill, the album expands the sincerity and self-awareness that made the Chicks country-pop staples decades ago. Only “March March” deviates from this personal scope to deliver a powerful statement against, well... everything political about this ***ed up year. The anger of the track is so comparable to the rest of the album that it doesn’t stick out.
The whole thing sounds immaculate. Jack Antonoff compounds their trademark songwriting through a variety of approaches, giving each song the space and depth it needs to deliver the punch. Despite these differences in style, such as the ferocious guitar of “Texas Man” or the swaying tease of “Tights on My Boat” (likely inspired by the infidelity-shade of Lemonade
following their collaboration with Beyonce), the album still lands squarely in country-pop territory--emphasis on the pop this time around. “Sleep at Night” is the best Taylor Swift song she never wrote, proving the Chicks experts at inverting the sounds of those they’ve influenced to fit their own needs.
While earlier works put all three Chicks on an equal platform, Maines stands tall as the star of this record. Her voice simply soars, having grown in emotion an intensity with age. Some fans will miss the constant harmonies and banjo/fiddle combo from sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer, but they remain ever-present and often essential. The album honors them immensely. Many songs, such as “Julianna Calm Down” and “My Best Friend’s Weddings” function as a love letter to their sisterhood and how it empowers each of them to move through struggles.
Perhaps the joy of this album is as simple as that; it’s a reunion. These tracks were all written and recorded recently. It isn’t stuck in time, production drawn out for over a decade while the tracks rot into something competent but hollow. Through a solo career and the sisters’ band Court Yard Hounds, the trio has made music separately since Taking the Long Way
. This album exists simply because Maines needed the comfort of her musical family to process it.
Taking place over many decades, “My Best Friend’s Weddings” references the two separate weddings of Strayer and how each affected Maines' life. During the first, she met her ex-husband and was in awe of his confidence, which would hurt her years later. She spitefully realizes that achieving peace of mind will surely put her ahead of wherever her ex-lover is in another twenty years. Finally, she remembers Strayer’s second marriage. Maines was in awe of how her friend was able to move on and find true joy again. The memory empowers her to move on with her life with grace. It’s a perfect song.
I acknowledge with some amusement that these albums act as similar milestones in my life. The above song asked me to consider where I’ve been between these two protracted releases. I look outside and see palm trees, far from the skyscrapers of my home in Chicago. Leaving my family was hard. But it was for a reason. Maines comes to the same conclusion she wants us to. Sometimes we need to take the time to learn how to “Go it alone.”