First of all, for me, reviewing The Chicks’ Gaslighter is like reviewing a unicorn….you never thought you would see it and you are left simply in awe of its majesty. It’s like reviewing the joy in a child’s laugh or the unconditional love of a family pet. Much like Gaslighter, these are all universally good things that make life on this mortal coil meaningful. It’s like reviewing the number five, I mean, you might like the number two more, but they are both crucial to the intrinsic laws of physics and nature….much like Gaslighter.
With that said, this piece will be more about why this is my #1 record of 2020 and less about a deep dive into why you should listen to this record. You have already gathered that I think you need to listen to this record, but I want to explain why I believe it is mandatory listening. Similar to why your tenth grade English teacher gave you a beat – up copy of Cather in the Rye and said that it was “required reading,” I am handing you this required listening for your “Great Voices in Music 101” course.
Gaslighter’s production is an interesting story where you have a pop mastermind melding seamlessly with The Chicks, who have an established sound of their own. The challenge of the producer is to create a fresh sound that does not drain the musical identity out of a band who have performed together for over a decade. For Gaslighter, The Chicks brought in Taylor Swift’s muse Jack Antonoff to co – produce the record with the band. This is similar to folklore where Taylor Swift brought in Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff to work on production with her. Similar to Antonoff’s most well known work, 1989 with Taylor Swift, Antonoff and The Chicks combine to bring fresh pop flourishes to a well established country sound. The triumph of the record is how the production brings in Antonoff’s ear for pop gold, while keeping The Chick’s incredible harmonies and exemplary musical skill intact. The best way to put it is that at its heart Gaslighter is an exciting Chick’s record and not an Antonoff record.
The album kicks off with one of the best title tracks of all time, Gaslighter. Starting the record with this track sets the table for the record thematically, musically and socially. First of all, it has been roughly fourteen years since the last Chick’s studio release, so fans expectations and concerns were at Defcon One. For example, this is the most excited I have been about a studio release in the past five years. Gaslighter quickly launches fan expectations into the stratosphere, while rendering any concerns pointless. Natalie Maines’ iconic emotionally soaked, laser sharp, country twang instantly announces the return of The Chicks within the track’s first seconds. Moreover, Emily Strayer and and Martie Maguire join the fray to complete the peerless harmonies Chicks fans have missed all these years. Moreover, acoustic guitars, strings and banjo come together to give the listener a well deserved dose of the roots / pop country hybrid the band popularised many years ago.
Thematically, Gaslighter lays out issues of gender, domestic violence, strength and courage, which Maines will explore throughout the rest of the record. Now, tackling social issues is nothing new for the Chicks; especially domestic violence. For example, the band took this social issue on back in 1999 with Goodbye Earl. However, this record follows Maines’ divorce with Adrian Pasdar, which colours the entire record. This gives the record a personal and intimate feeling that was not present on previous tracks about domestic violence. Speaking from such a vulnerable and personal voice gives lyrics about domestic violence an added depth. In some ways, you feel as if you are hearing from a DV survivor in her own voice, as opposed to a social issue song about DV in general. It is this vulnerability that shows the true pain and destruction caused by DV, but simultaneously highlights the courage and hope survivors have when they find their strength.
The track For Her is a prime example of how DV is not only a tale of pain and grief, but also one of courage and strength. Musically, this song highlights Maines’ power as a vocal performer. Her vocals convey pain, regret, hope and strength, while the sheer vocal skill on the chorus will bring you to your knees. Furthermore, Antonoff’s production on this track is quite restrained, which showcases Maines’ songwriting and vocal skill. Lines like, “Wish I could go back and tell my younger self / You’re a fighter, you just don’t know it yet.” recognise the pain and grief she experienced, while also acknowledging that the strength to survive was always there.
The first song where you can really tell Antonoff’s influence is the track about the Black Lives Matter protests, March March. The track itself starts with electric beats and base, with not an acoustic instrument in sight. It is a sparse electronic landscape with effects on Strayer’s and Maguire’s backing vocals, which yield to sharp electric guitar and fiddle near the tail end of the track. However, within this electronic forest Maines’ voice and harmonies harken back to traditional Chick’s tracks and give you a guiding light. This track is a good example of how the Chicks are taking their well crafted vocal sound and applying it to a new modern context.
Another example of this production work is the standout track Juliana Calm Down, a track about domestic violence, grief and resistance. In this track Maines acts as a reassuring voice for women experiencing abuse. She assures them that they will come out the other side and they have the power to resist, within a sea of grief and pain. Even though Maines documents the emotional cost of domestic violence, she assures women “it’ll be ok” and they can “put on their best shoes and strut the fuck around.” It might be put on, but strutting the fuck around will show him, and everyone else, that you will make it. Musically, Antonoff has the synth and percussion build to the point of celebration as Maines yells women’s names at her emotional peak. She is naming them. Maines will not let domestic violence erase these women. They will be named and celebrated in a final “fuck you” to the men who sought to silence them.
Even though Gaslighter is named after a well known form of psychological abuse associated with domestic violence, this record is much more than a record about the toxic nature of DV. This is a record from the survivor’s perspective. Of course it is a story of grief, loss and pain, but it is also a story of hope and strength. Maines, Strayer and Maguire need to be revered for the courage it took to put out such a vulnerable and personal record. This is more than the best record of 2020. The courage portrayed in this record will give women who listen to this record, who are experiencing domestic violence, the strength to strut the fuck around and make it to the other side. This is an inspirational record that loudly, and proudly, sings out these women’s names and lets them know that their story is one to be respected and heard.
Listen to Gaslighter
If you, or soneone you know, is experiencing domestic violence, check these out: