Album Anne-alaysis: Gaslighter by The Chicks

Genre: Country with tasteful dashes of pop
Year: 2020
Runtime: 46:54
Total Number of Tracks: 12
Songs you might know:
– “Gaslighter”
– “Sleep at Night”
– “March March”
– “Julianna Calm Down”

My prior relationship with the album and artist: I freaking love The Chicks (still getting used to the new name). When I first got a boombox when I was 6 years old Fly was THE album I couldn’t stop playing on it. Okay, I couldn’t stop playing the first five songs, because I didn’t yet have the attention span to listen to an entire album. As a teenager I loved Takin’ the Long Way as well, and as an adult “Goodbye Earl” is one of my favorite karaoke songs. The Chicks are also my all-time favorite artist for getting non-country fans to give the genre a chance.

Upon learning that they would be putting out a new album, I was ecstatic. When I found out that they would be making this album with Jack Antonoff… I was… excited, but in a cautiously curious way. I had absolutely no idea what country music would sound like in Antonoff’s hands. And while I HATE when people ridicule comeback albums for not sounding like prior work of that artist that was made decades ago, there’s still a part of me that LOVES how The Chicks sounded back in the day and still want them to sound like that. While I’m a big fan of Antonoff, he certainly has a distinctive style that is decidedly NOT country, and sometimes other artists struggle to put their own stamp on things after he gets involved. Most of these fears were put to rest though upon hearing the title track, which does a great job of sounding like The Chicks I know and love while still feeling like an updated version of them. I also heard “March March” before the album dropped, and after that I was fairly confident that the album wouldn’t have an issue with being overly Antonoffied.

 My impression this time around: There’s no denying that Gaslighter is an all-around fantastic record. It’s a breakup album that does what all the best breakup albums do, exploring the full range of feelings involved with ending a relationship, in this case a marriage of 17 years. There’s moments of sadness and vulnerability and feeling sorry for yourself. There’s the feisty anger that The Chicks are known for. There’s the lightning bolt of strength that happens upon finally asserting yourself over your toxic partner. And what makes Gaslighter particularly special is that it doesn’t necessarily compartmentalize these moods into different songs. A lot of the tracks are a complex, nuanced looks into at all of them.

“Gaslighter” is about being angry and calling out your ex for their shitty behavior, while still recognizing how badly you’ve been hurt. It’s empowering in its rage, but realistically depicts how low you can feel when you’re betrayed by your partner.

“Tights on My Boat” is angry as hell, but it’s also about making peace with the fact that you can’t personally get vengeance all by yourself, and sometimes you just have to move on with your life and trust karma to take care of it.

“Sleep at Night” has this exhilarating energy to it, really capturing the feeling of breaking free from a toxic relationship. Yet the lyrics are all about that toxicity and how there’s nothing funny about trying to stay positive while your husband is a cheating bastard.

“Set Me Free” is about being sad that the relationship is over, while still desperately longing to finally be single and free again.

There’s also some REALLY effective country pop hybrids on this track, perhaps the best being “March March.” There’s something dark and brooding about this track and I LOVE the idea of appropriating this almost John Wayne-esque aura and channeling it into social justice causes. “Sleep at Night” is another great example of how pop beats can coexist with country instrumentation and make for a complete banger.

All That being said, the album kind of hits its peak after the first two songs. That’s not to say that anything else going on here is a BAD song, I truly believe there’s no bad track on the whole thing. But unfortunately the calmer ballads just don’t stand out the same way “Gaslighter” and “Sleep at Night” do. We get all this energy at the beginning, and never quite get it back again. As the album retreats into slow ballad territory, it gets more forgettable, even if while I’m listening to it I still thing “wow, great track ladies!” I still have trouble remembering how “Young Man” goes and when I get up to “Everybody Loves You” I always think, “oh yeah, this is a good song but I forgot it was here.”

One thing I will give the slower songs credit for is that they tend to have some of the best instrumental sections of the whole album. One of the things I always loved about The Chicks/Dixie Chicks is that they didn’t just play their instruments, they played those instruments exceptionally well and weren’t afraid to show it. So many bands seem to revolve around their lead singer to the point where other musicians can be replaced at any moment and no one bats an eye. The Chicks were never like that. They were a true unit where Martie’s fiddle and Emily’s guitar/banjo/whatever seemed just as integral to the group’s sound as Natalie’s vocals. Gaslighter doesn’t QUITE live up to that, and I wish Emily and Martie had more opportunities to show off. When they do get those opportunities, they’re quite beautiful, and the violin breaks on ballads like “Everybody Loves You” tend to be the high points of those tracks.

Who would enjoy it? This is a great one for people who love breakup albums that “spill the tea” so to speak. Those themes are universal enough that I don’t necessarily think you need to be a country fan to enjoy it.

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