The Chicks have never tolerated liars, cheaters or scoundrels. They coaxed dirty secrets from their lovers’ mouths on “Let ‘Er Rip,” promising strength in the face of the truth. In another case, the offender in question was such a scumbag they plotted his murder. In 2006, on their most recent album Taking The Long Way, they still weren’t ready to make nice. While they’re famous for romantic songs like “Cowboy Take Me Away” and hopeful ballads like “Wide Open Spaces,” Natalie Maines, Martie Erwin Maguire and Emily Strayer have always been tough as nails.
After Maines criticized then-president George W. Bush at a London concert in 2003, they were forced to prove their strength in a whole new way. They were all but totally ousted from the country music community, banned from radio stations and, ultimately, blacklisted. Following their 2006 release, they quietly retreated from public view until last year when they appeared on Taylor Swift’s Lover track “Soon You’ll Get Better” and began teasing a new album on Instagram. “Soon You’ll Get Better” was a song about Swift’s mother fighting cancer, and some conservatives still despised them. And then, a few weeks ago, after Black Lives Matter protests gripped the U.S., the trio dropped the word “dixie,” which holds historically racist connotations, from their band name in an effort to “meet the moment.” And thus, The Chicks were hatched.
So it should come as no surprise that the band are consistently resilient on their relentless fifth LP Gaslighter. The same Natalie, Martie and Emily who threatened their best friend’s cheating husband on “Goodbye Earl” are fired up on every Gaslighter song, particularly “Sleep At Night,” where Maines asks, “My husband’s girlfriends’ husband just called me / And how messed up is that? / It’s so insane that I have to laugh,” before adding, “But then I think about our two boys trying to become men / there’s nothing funny about that” and recounting the instance where her husband brought the aforementioned side piece to a Chicks show. How does he sleep at night, indeed. She later sets her children free from her own struggles and encourages them to “leave the bad news behind” on the heartbreaking “Young Man.” The instinct to nurture and protect (in these cases, Maines’ sons) pops up again and again on Gaslighter, and it very often takes the shape of standing up for the abused—even if that includes themselves.
The title track spits fire at the abuser in question, forcing him to come to terms with his horrible actions. “Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat,” Maines sings, before joining Martie and Emily on what has to be the most cleansing chorus of 2020: “Gaslighter, big timer / repeating all of the mistakes of your father / Gaslighter, you broke me / You’re sorry, but where’s my apology?” Later we find out what exactly went down on Maines’ sea vessel (extramarital relations, obviously), as she looks for revenge on “Tights On My Boat,” singing, “I hope you die peacefully in your sleep / just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me.” Pardon my French, but damn. “You’re gonna get what you’ve got comin’ to ya,” she later swears. Perhaps it’s not exactly in line with my feminism to state this, but hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
As they wade through these dozen tracks, The Chicks reposition their defense arsenal on behalf of others. On “For Her,” they bestow advice upon their younger “fighter” selves, but the song also works like a message of perseverance to any young woman frantically reposting inspirational Morgan Harper Nichols quotes to her Instagram stories: “So dig a little bit deeper / and be a little bit kinder,” they sing, “And be a lot less guarded / because it takes a lot of hard work / to get a whole lot stronger / because it’s real tough, girl.” Now there’s a reminder worth scribbling inside your bullet journal. On the empowering tearjerker “Julianna Calm Down,” they just remind us (“us” actually being specific women in their own lives, including Julianna, Harper, Violet, Katie, Eva and others) to just breathe, hold on and keep it together: “It’ll be OK.”
On single “March March,” they turn their attention towards fighting injustices beyond heartbreak. They namedrop gun control activist Emma Gonzalez and call for reproductive rights and action against climate change. It’s a blanket modern-day protest song released in the thick of one of the most heated battles for racial justice in recent memory, and The Chicks use both their words and their banjo as weapons.
But it’s not all group therapy and politics: The free spiritedness of “Wide Open Spaces” and the reckless goofiness of “Sin Wagon” are still here, too, namely within the physical longing of “Texas Man” (aka “that good king of keeping me up all night”). In a similar way that Reese Witherspoon spearheaded efforts to avail more roles for women aged 40 and older in Hollywood, The Chicks are offering country music a new perspective on middle age. Divorce, motherhood and maturing friendships often take the spotlight over relationship drama, and that’s a beautiful sign of the wisdom that comes with age. Gaslighter features the fire-under-their-bellies anger that defines youth and can spark real change, yes, but it’s also an even-keeled, grownup album about grownup issues.
Ultimately, Gaslighter is powerfully split between the band who were once the Dixie Chicks and who are now The Chicks. Old demons dance alongside new loves. Meanwhile, Natalie, Emily and Martie shout their political opinions, cries for justice and messages of support on behalf of abused women everywhere from the mountaintops, all to the tune of polished, country-pop gold (in part thanks to the production savvy of Jack Antonoff). Their silence is no more. In fact, their voices are more amplified than ever. The Chicks are not only their own best defenders, but they also make great fighters for the vulnerable. Gaslighter is the best country album of 2020 because it forces empathy onto the listener while reminding us we don’t have to be superheroes to make a difference. As Maines sings on “For Her,” “I’m not a martyr, I’m just a person who cares.” It’s up to us to decide which direction we march in next.
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.