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The Chicks After The Fire

From its brash title track to a denouement that begs to be set free, <em>Gaslighter</em> — The Chicks' first album in 14 years — is a story of painful awakening.
Betsy Whitney
Courtesy of the artist
From its brash title track to a denouement that begs to be set free, Gaslighter — The Chicks' first album in 14 years — is a story of painful awakening.

Here's the thing about breakups: Sometimes you have to burn down the house you thought was home, but at night you still need to find a place to sleep. This is true for those who leave a long marriage, or a toxic family, or a community that proves oppressive. Artists can experience this painful unsettling too, especially ones nurtured within scenes that present themselves as loving unbroken circles, with all the promised comforts and invisible strictures that word entails. The freedom can be exhilarating, the severing of ties necessary, even life-saving. But there's always a point where the sparks and noise subside, and there you there you'll be, untethered, nerves seared by the heat of the match.

What remains in those moments? This is the most interesting question the Chicks ask, and answer in various ways, throughout the trio's first album in 14 years, Gaslighter.Sheer will is one thing that a brokenhearted person can access — the determination, as lead singer Natalie Maines advises the teenage girls in her life in "Julianna Calm Down", to "put on, put on, put on" a strong front even when resilience feels like a fiction — like something "put on." Humor is another, a longtime weapon in this band's arsenal, employed here in the title track and elsewhere to turn crushing realizations of betrayal into occasions for kicking some three-part harmony ass. These active responses to another's bad behavior, long key to the appeal of a trio whose biggest hits included titles like "There's Your Trouble" and the abusive-husband-burying "Goodbye Earl," are generating headlines for Gaslighter declaring this return "explosive" and "defiant." But its anthems would leak power if not surrounded by the album's quieter and more wrenching moments evoking the stark self-confrontation that comes with loss.

Natalie Maines has been open about what brought her back to songwriting after years mostly away — a contentious divorce that's caused her to reassess nearly two decades of her life. Her story of betrayal and awakening complements the saga of her band, which was famously banished from the country music mainstream in 2003 for defying the genre's conservative political base, even as it forged a new approach to the genre that's deeply influenced younger artists like Taylor Swift (a Chicks ally who's also worked with the band's current producer, Jack Antonoff) and Maren Morris. From its brash callout of a title track to a denouement that demands and begs "Set Me Free," Gaslighter is the story of Maines's painful awakening, expressed within the larger context of sexism and the movements that fight against it. All three Chicks have been through divorces; as a band, these women have split from scenes and cities, dealt with music-industry fickleness and public shaming, even as they've maintained a mostly female fan base that never questioned their integrity or relevance. They came apart as a band, too, for several years, with multi-instrumentalist Emily Strayer and fiddler Martie Maguire, who are sisters, staying in Texas and working together in the years Maines established herself in Los Angeles. Though their familiar story forever marks the Chicks as firebrands, they are also women in midlife who've endured enough to know barn-burning, necessary as it may be, clouds the air.

"Been way too long since somebody's body kept me up all night," Maines sings in the back-on-the-market romp "Texas Man," one of the album's jumpy crowd-pleasers, designed to get 15,000 women in an arena singing along. Then a beat; the arrangement momentarily drops away. "Yeah," she thoughtfully drawls. "That goodkind of keeping me up all night." Many of Gaslighter's songs describe the other kind — the 3 a.m. stare into space, into darkness disturbed by questions. Their anger can be startling, the specificity of the accusations nearly distasteful; Gaslighter's already much-discussed intimations of a union-shattering affair taking place on a yacht, alongside references to tax bills and Hollywood Bowl backstage encounters, evoke privilege casually, in the same way that's earned Swift frequent criticisms. But all the luxury items in the world don't diminish the pain in the way Maines's notes crack as she sings, in "My Best Friend's Wedding," "Twenty years, twenty years, twenty years... I was never safe, never safe, still never safe." Her isolation and confusion haunt these repeated phrases. That repetition is a technique that runs throughout Gaslighter's songs, a way of signaling late-night rumination. Nothing says you're alone like a painful thought you just can't shake.

Maines rarely does sing these phrases all by herself, though; as she articulates her deepest vulnerabilities, Strayer and Maguire's voices rise up to support her. Sometimes their trademark harmonies hover in the background like a little choir of familiar angels; at other times they meld with Maines's lead in a way that feels deeply internal, like the hard-won emergence of inner clarity. Maines's warble helped the Chicks gain stardom because it doesn't perfectly blend — she's an idiosyncratic singer, more interested in emotional nuance than in precision or a smooth tone, unmistakably herself in any context. The relationship between her singular tone and the sister-blend her bandmates achieve is what stands out within Chicks songs: It's beautiful but imperfect, like emotion.

What mirrors and enriches Maines's self-expression even more than close harmonies is the sensitivity of Strayer and Maguire as instrumentalists, which can be almost jazzlike in its responsiveness to her vocal phrasings. If their voices have inspired a million singalongs, and will do so again with Gaslighter's more rousing cuts, this instrumental interplay sustains the band's dreamy interiority. This was true when the trio famously covered "Landslide," the Stevie Nicks composition whose message that experience is better than innocence is the ground from which Gaslighterarises. It's true in their most powerful ballads, like "Wide Open Spaces," all about preserving "room to make the big mistakes," or "Easy Silence," a rare love song about respecting boundaries instead of passionately eradicating them. And it's true on Gaslighter, when Strayer's banjo kicks off "Sleep at Night" like an itchy worry, or behind Maines's anguished plea in "Set Me Free," when Maguire's violin and viola lines are the last teardrops falling.

The trio's interplay is supplemented throughout by keyboard effects and sometimes busy arrangements courtesy of Antonoff, enlisted, evidently, to ensure pop currency — the Chicks play arenas, don't forget, and clearly have no interest in becoming strictly a nostalgia act. The fit doesn't feel forced, though neither does it seem completely natural. As a kind of artistic "little brother," Antonoff preserves the trio's integrity, building concentrically outward from their soul connection. A handful of L.A. pop pros, including Justin Tranter, Julia Michaels, Teddy Geiger and Ariel Rechtshaid aided in the songwriting – Tranter told one interviewer that at times they'd grab lyrics from studio conversation and craft choruses from them. On Gaslighter's uptempo songs, Antonoff's classic move of building huge, hypnotic choruses pays off, producing a wave of energy that feels like a surging Women's March (there's even a song about that, called, appropriately, "March March"). And the slower songs often exploit the Chicks's double-helix relationship to Antonoff regular Swift — the younger superstar's songbook takes so much from their example that it's only right, now, that Maines sometimes takes cues from her careful confessionalism and off-handed brilliance for setting a scene. Still, this is a Chicks album, grounded in the balance of bold strokes and equanimity that made this combination powerful in the first place.

At the center of it all is Natalie Maines's voice. The words that best describe it, here and in all of the Chicks's music, are deeply connected to the country music tradition. "Lonesome" is one. This band began its life in bluegrass, where the "high lonesome sound" is fundamental — the purest manifestation of the white rural American "confronting the dilemma of his own existence," as the late folklorist John Cohen once said. Roscoe Holcomb, the Kentucky forebear whom Cohen helped make famous, used plainer words: "I sit down, I feel lonesome." Though currently maligned (with some good reason) as brainless party music, country, like its cousin bluegrass, is also a primary arena within popular music where the shadowy corners of interior life are fully explored, especially as they relate to grief, disappointment, and the ember of hope that remains after hardship — adult frames of mind, as many writers who know the genre beyond Luke Bryan's singles discography have often noted. As they dwell within these moodscapes, Gaslighter's ballads keep the Chicks connected to country, and especially to the voices of its women.

It was Mark Twain who wrote, long before any current musical genres had been named, that "the most lonesome sound in nature" was that of a silent woman's spinning wheel running in a room where she sat alone: "a sound steeped and sodden with homesickness and the emptiness of life." He made this observation while staying with a Missouri farm family during the Civil War; later he put it in Huckleberry Finn's mouth, as a way for the boy to describe his own creeping awareness that life is hard and he, like everyone, will be abandoned, will die. Huckleberry Finn has been properly excised by some from today's libraries because of Twain's profligate use of the "N" word — in that very passage, in fact, its recurrence destroys the pathos of the scene. (In the same anti-racist spirit, the Chicks have abandoned the word "Dixie," until recently the first half of the trio's name.) What's worth preserving is Twain's original insight that women, doing what they had to within households that often disregarded their worth, define the quality of lonesomeness as their sorrow resonates alongside and intertwined with their determination to survive. It's this quality that the women of the Carter family brought to their political lament "Single Girl, Married Girl." It permeated the music of Patsy Cline as she walked after midnight and radiated within the calm Tammy Wynette projected as she sang of a divorce that became final one day. Maines and her bandmates connect to those older voices in songs like "Young Man," dedicated to the sons trying to adjust to a family's dissolution: "Take a good look at my life," she sings, "and try to understand I've done my best." There's a neat nod to Neil Young in that lyric — to the young male rocker who called out an old man for not understanding him. But here the Chicks reverse the order of things, placing a mother at the center. Her self-assertion is not impudent, as was Young's. It's simply realistic.

If lonesomeness is the quality that best connects the Chicks to country music now, the way that mood flows throughout Gaslighter also offers an argument for abandoning such genre distinctions. The weariness Maines claims as her own, even as she rallies and rises, found earlier expression when Dinah Washington sang "You Don't Know What Love Is" and when Etta James declared, facing her own betrayal, "I'd Rather Go Blind." It resonates through the blues, too, of course, country's blood relative and a genre first made popular by women. True to its pop-factory origins, Gaslighter more obviously references current soul queens — "Sleep at Night" plays with rhythm the way Rihanna does, and the album's narrative structure obviously owes a debt to Chicks collaborator Beyoncé's classic Lemonade, though it fails to share in that album's happy ending. Instead, Maines and her bandmates stay in the sadness, learning by its flickering light. Pop, always forward-thinking simply because of its fealty to the marketplace, thrives on optimism. Country, playing out its insular tendencies, often seeks beauty in a bluer mood. There will be joy again, this album assures listeners, but it will be tempered. And the lonesomeness will remain, giving its own kind of life.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.