In their classic hit ‘Goodbye Earl’ the Chicks sang gleefully about murdering an abusive husband, whose violent actions meant there was no other option: he simply ‘had to die’. The song was pure revenge fantasy where two women take back the power and their happy ending is a world of friendship, peace, joy and freedom.
Unfortunately in the real world most of us have to find a way to live alongside those men – husbands, fathers, bosses, heroes etc – who violate and hurt us in varying extremes. We can’t cancel their existence with a shovel and a smile, even if we sing along to the song like we might want to. However that doesn’t mean we can’t fight and scream in protest at the injustice women face daily. When even getting a simple divorce can be a torturous and traumatic experience you have to conclude that something is wrong with the system itself.
Natalie Maines knows this all too well and uses Gaslighter, the first album from the band in fourteen years to reckon with her private pain and the collective struggle of her bandmates and women everywhere to survive this cruel world the patriarchy has built.
From the blistering opening title track we know that the Chicks are as defiant as ever and this time the personal is political. Musically it’s an unashamedly epic-sounding pop song that roars into its collective scream of ‘Gaslighter / Denier’ and is as important as anything they’ve ever sung. Let the country genre purists and technology luddites moan about the Jack Antonoff production all they like – this album had to sound modern and vital because this band are aiming to be heard by as wide an audience as possible and this producer knows how to deliver.
Gaslighter exposes the gruelling toll that marriage and divorce take on the soul and the spirit. When Maines sings that she moved to California to follow HIS dreams we understand and sympathise with her. Of course she believed in the impossible promises of forever love and lifelong commitment they made together. Society has conditioned us to happily submit to an outdated social system designed to fail. When she wakes up to the truth of his lies and cheating, she thankfully throws him out but the pain is only beginning.
The second song ‘Sleep At Night’ is devastating in its vulnerability. Maines addresses her ex with the direct question: how do you sleep at night? It’s not enough to have humiliated her by parading his mistress under her nose backstage at her own concert (I mean the fucking nerve of this motherfucker) now he’s going to drain her for every penny she’s got. The saddest thing in the whole song is when she contemplates the future of her children living in the shadow of such a man, such a world: ‘I think about our two boys trying to become men / There’s nothing funny about that.’
The theme is explored in depth on ‘Young Men’ which is addressed to her son. She understands that his father is his hero but hopes he can ‘take the best parts of him/leave the bad news behind’. A simple dream you hope can come true for the sake of everyone involved. On ‘Juliana Calm Down’ the band address the women in their family in turn, reminding them that despite all the anxiety they may face in life ‘it’ll be okay’.
For Her is a letter to their younger selves, a reminder to ‘dig a little deeper / And be a little kinder’ and ‘stand up/ For Her’. The ‘Her’ is every woman everywhere, the girls who are fighters but just don’t know it yet. Optimism that life will be better for women in the future is sometimes all we have left to hold on to.
On the catchy Texas Man, Maines dreams of finding a new man who is patient, attentive, understanding, loving, interested in her mind rather than wanting to destroy her – such basic needs in any healthy relationship and yet so detached from the reality of how men behave it’s almost laughable. Maybe the world would be an easier place to live in if we all stopped dreaming of a mythical cowboy taking us away. What saves this song and makes it empowering is how it addresses the reality of aging and unapologetic female desire.
Much of this album is quite devastating to listen to, such is the pain and the truth in these songs. Tights on My Boat is a brutal expose of adultery with that specific image of betrayal rendered so vividly. Everybody Loves You describes how hard it is to cope when you hate someone so much it drives you to the edge of sanity. Forgive sounds good but how can you ever let the pain go?
My Best Friend’s Weddings encapsulates this suffering most clearly, telling the story of their twenty year marriage and concluding ‘I was never safe.’ She takes steps forward by celebrating going it alone and thankfully realises how much she enjoys her own company.
My heart sank then at the end of the song when she describes her bandmate getting married again, concluding with: ‘I’ve never seen her look more happy / Guess from ashes we can really grow’. Honestly I found those lines the most depressing on the whole album. No woman’s happiness should ever be reliant on getting married and as long as we’re all willingly signing up to an institution that was designed to destroy our liberty then we are doomed to live in the same hell that The Chicks sing about so vividly on this album. You can say not all marriages (or indeed not all men) if you want to live in denial but surely there has to be a better way for everyone? We can rise from the ashes of our past pain but if we do that just set fire to ourselves again then the cycle of misery will never end (here endeth my anti-marriage TED talk, sorry not sorry).
Considering the current political climate the personal nature of this album may surprise some, but all these issues are tied up to wider problems. The band’s political consciousness has always been clear and they have now changed their name to reflect concerns about the problematic history of the term ‘Dixie’, which shows a willingness to listen and evolve. The powerfully understated song March March looks outward to the key issues facing society, from gun violence to racism, showing solidarity with those who are trying to bring about positive changes. In these movements at least there is some hope left for a better world.
Gaslighter finishes with Set Me Free – a plea to her ex to sign the damn divorce papers. His final act of domination and control is to make her beg for her freedom. It’s a heartbreaking confession of misery. When she sings Not Ready to Make Nice next time on tour the final refrain ‘They say time heals everything / but I’m still waiting’ will ring more devastatingly true than ever.
Such suffering and righteous anger at the world is a fire that fuels the best art, the best music and connects us together in the struggle. Gaslighter is a powerful reflection of the way women live now. You hope this album will be cathartic for the band, for their fans, for women everywhere. We need The Chicks selling out arenas and headlining festivals, inspiring the future generations that you can march to the beat of your own drum and succeed because of, and not in spite of, that fact. To have The Chicks release ‘Gaslighter‘ at this moment in history is such an important statement of intent. Welcome back and please never leave us again.