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THE CHICKS GO
THEIR OWN WAY


There’s a moment in “Texas Man” where most of the arrangement falls away and it’s nothing but Natalie Maines’ muscular torch twang moan, a thrumming rush and a beat that feels like it’s gaining momentum. Guttural, perhaps, but also the same kind of emotional sweep that not only defies words but embodies the way The Chicks brought a toppling girl-power to ’90s country music.

That same euphoric press, built on smart songs and world-class musicianship (enough can’t be said about the abilities of sister Chicks Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer’s skills on the entire bluegrass/Texas dancehall arsenal of stringed things) makes Gaslighter the most listenable divorce record since Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear or Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. And that’s important.

Taking a deep dive into the dissolution of marriage, The Chicks have figured out how to create something braiding raw vulnerability, soul-searching and enough thrust that it’s not just a maceration of incrimination. Jack Antonoff and The Chicks create soundscapes that build and fall away (“How Do You Sleep at Night”), ascend heavenly-hymn-like (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”), offer Joni Mitchell/James Taylor-style apology to Maines’ sons (“Young Man”) and explore surging protest beats (“March, March”). The Chicks’ retinue of banjo, violin, mandolin and dobro supplements pop’s normal keyboards, samples and computers.

The story really starts with the churlish “Gaslighter,” which opens adozen-track song cycle that moves through the whipsawing emotions of uncoupling. Between stringing “la-la-la-liars” like backyard lights, the music swerves from old-time camp meetings to simple pull-you-in vocal. So frisky, yet in 3:23, The Chicks not only unpack the complex concept of gaslighting, they drop one of the great mysteries—what did he do on her boat—of modern music. Freight-packed charges, recriminations, concepts and harsh truths tumble down like candy from a busted piñata.

For the Chicks, this isn’t just smash ’n’ knee. There’s the slow trip through the relationship (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”), the doubt about his decision (“I Hope It’s Something Good”), the carnal need (“Texas Man”) and brave-face bravado in the storm (the Wurlitzer-padded “Juliana, Calm Down”).

There are also trips into 12 Step thinking (the admission “We’re only as sick as our secrets”), empowering her inner child and girls everywhere (“For Her”) and the waves of social change at hand (“March, March”). Each works for the larger trope, but also the personal journey that unites this song cycle. Divorce is messy. There are no clear-cut emotions even for the wronged; the compromises made or indignities swallowed for the sake of “twenty years of hanging on.” Not since Carly Simon sorted through the phases of upper-middle-class “domestic bliss” has there been this sort of specificity. The disappointments, swallowed rages, confusion and how the self is surrendered to be wedded are all part of it.

Freight-packed charges, recriminations, concepts and harsh truths tumble down like candy from a busted piñata.

Being the Chicks, there’s also fist-thrust truth, but it’s bound with some of their loveliest melodies ever. The strings caressing the unvarnished reckoning of “Everybody Loves You,” the narcotic hush of the closing “Set Me Free,” as much an elegy as a plea. Is it from love, or signing the papers? With that molten vibrato, Maines looks back, acknowledging, “To have and to hold/All weight of this hate is exhausting... Just because you’ve been a bad guy/I’ve seen it with my own eyes/There’s a good guy in there/Decency would be to sign and release me.” Given the details, it could be either. Regardless, this isn’t just a shrew-fest where the wronged party throws machete after Molotov cocktail.

And then there’s the humor. Black, black humor that pulls no punches. Not funny, because it’s ostensibly true. “My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me/How messed up is that?,” Maines tautly purrs on “How Do You Sleep at Night,” before dropping the hammer. “Remember you brought her to our show at the Hollywood Bowl/She said, ‘I love you. I’m such a fan’/I joked you can love me as long as you don’t love my man.”

Maines then closes the truculent memory with the caveat, “I know it’s not unique to me.”

As for the “what you did on my boat,” it gets resolved with “Tights on My Boat,” a full-throated slink that wafts up, swirls around and kisses off with a come-hither tone. A kiss-off lament that allows Maines to curl and scat with her feathery upper register, it is an unapologetic list of offenses that ties up the universal trope of cheating man.

Beyond the “girl, be wary” caution flare The Chicks set off, Gaslighter offers freedom in many forms. Suggesting freedom comes with a cost, emotional and physical, they know that after it all, the ultimate freedom—“I learned to hold my tongue, and now that you’re done, I get to write this song”—is not silently co-signing someone else’s lie.

For women—and any man who’s married a gold-digger and swore “it’s love”—this is the road map to the good, the hard, the sad and the ugly. But the best part, the music is as compelling as the words being sung by one of the world’s most fearless vocalists.

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