The Chicks shed more than their former name with Gaslighter, showing a new side to their classic sound.
In her Netflix documentary Miss Americana, Taylor Swift admits to long viewing the Dixie Chicks as a cautionary tale. Referencing their anti-Bush comments from the height of the Iraq War, and their subsequent exile from country radio, Swift frames the once-unstoppable Texas trio as a public warning about what happens to outspoken women. Things come full-circle in 2020, with Swift simultaneously dominating the charts and ramping up her political advocacy, just as the now-Dixieless Chicks return to the spotlight with Gaslighter, their first album in 14 years. It just so happens to be produced by Swift’s longtime lieutenant Jack Antonoff, who ensures that it’s a thoroughly modern production through and through: The Chicks still know how to set fire with their insanely tight harmonies (“Gaslighter”), and there’s plenty of acoustic twang scattered throughout the album (“Sleep at Night,” “Hope It’s Something Good”), but the bluegrass pyrotechnics and old-time sway that marked their classic albums are mostly sidelined in favor of svelte, digital productions. This has the effect of making The Chicks sound less like a real band than ever, while a preponderance of ballads means Gaslighter never quite takes off like a pop album in the way that Swift’s Antonoff team-ups do.
Funnily enough, it’s also an album that mostly eschews politics; the stainless steel boom-bap of “March March” is a pointed example, referencing the courageous advocacy of the young, but the title song is less about life in the Trump/Kavanaugh era than its name might suggest, instead focusing its ire on a faithless lover. (Like so many classic diss tracks, its power comes from its specificity, e.g., “Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat.”) Most of Gaslighter plays out like a divorce album, and in that sense, it almost sounds like a more seasoned and experienced follow-up to their classic Fly; while that album chronicled heartache with equal parts indignation and surrender, Gaslighter sounds more pugilistic, defiant, and uninhibited. In other words, The Chicks are still not ready to make nice — and what impresses most about Gaslighter is how it can sound so distinct from their previous albums while still sounding like a natural, even inevitable bend in their trajectory.
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | Q3 2020 Issue.