Photo Credit: Liz Collins
The Chicks’ eighth album originally was going to be an easy record of covers, a wham-bam compilation that took less effort to put out than the accolades it would no doubt receive, fulfilling their seven-album contract with Sony’s Columbia Records and allowing them to move on. After the barn-storming stampede of anger unleashed with their last album, and the multiple Grammy-winning 2006 effort Taking the Long Way, the Chicks were redeemed. They had lost their core audience in the country radio set by criticizing George Bush but found an entirely new one in young women who didn’t want to take any man’s shit anymore.
Fourteen years later, enter Gaslighter: an entirely new breed of hellfire and wrath wrought by the women who already warned you about cheating on them. As a record, Gaslighter details the narrative of a woman gaslit and cheated on by her husband. The parallels with lead singer Natalie Maines’ own life are not purely coincidence; her divorce after a nearly twenty-year marriage to actor Adrian Pasdar (Profit, The Lying Game, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) was finalized in 2019. The record references far too many personal details to let even the most casual listener escape the emotional gravitas and the result is a tumultuous ride that feels freshly familiar, like a greatest-hits compilation of Chicks tracks that have never been heard.
Intensely brutal honesty is the perfect foil to a gaslighting character – and Pasdar, the gaslighter in question, asked the court amid divorce proceedings to grant him access to all of Maines’ unreleased music, fearful that it might breach a confidentiality clause in their prenuptial agreement (for what it’s worth, Pasdar also argued that same prenup was invalid in his ploy to obtain financial support from Maines once the divorce was finalized). Breach that confidentiality clause she certainly did, and lines throughout Gaslighter are prone to cause wincing reactions like, “Damn, did she really just say that?” One pre-chorus in “Sleep At Night” rubs particularly close to the bone: “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” Can’t paint a clearer picture than that.
The same song charges the gaslighter with being “so caught up” in his stories, stories that are fodder for many of the other songs on the record. “Everybody Loves You” tells the story of a doomed romance with a covert narcissist set to simple instrumentation that’s anchored by executive producer Jack Antonoff’s ever-so-delicate keys. The feeling strongly echoes the defensive solemnity of his piano-playing on Lana Del Rey’s Norman F*cking Rockwell! standout “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it.” Maines’ warbling cry is so bare and piercing, it’s enough to well up plenty of tears and move mountains, particularly in the song’s sparse outro. Her internal struggle becomes real to us with the soft tug-of-war between the acoustic guitars and piano, and the balance is nothing but classic Chicks.
As we’ve previously noted, Antonoff is adept at bringing out the most “real” version of artists he works with, seemingly not because of demand or rigorous work ethic, but instead because he functions as a musical psychologist, listening to his patients and coaxing the truth from them so that they can see it for themselves and choose how to move forward. It’s in the simple joy of the music, too, that perhaps creates a more encouraging atmosphere for honesty and humility – never weaknesses of the Chicks, but certainly more front-and-center here than ever before.
Gaslighter is slowed down by the sheer weight of its many emotional ballads. The fantastic, bridge-burning, eponymous lead single and the two tracks that follow it build massive momentum that’s snuffed like a candle as the core of the album reveals itself to be a scorned and wounded lover trying to salvage her own life and the lives of her two sons as they come of age. “Your hero fell just as you came of age,” Maines sings on “Young Man”, brilliantly alluding to Pasdar as both the hero to their two teenage sons and as the superpowered Nathan Petrelli, his character on Heroes.
The Chicks have always been suckers for blearing nuance. The sentimental album closer “Set Me Free” serves the quadruple purpose of releasing Maines from her marriage and associated legal battles, releasing the Chicks from their record contract, releasing them from preconceived notions in the public eye and releasing the listener from this damned emotional roller coaster. It’s the perfect kiss-off, a demanding insistence that masquerades as a wailing plea. That duality has been central to these women’s careers since the get-go; they’ll run you like hell and make you beg, but it was always your fault all along. That duality is still front and center, even twenty years later, and it is evident that The Chicks are still some of the best talents around.