More than a decade — 14 years, exactly — have passed since The Chicks have released a full-length studio album. A lot has changed since The Chicks’ 2006 record Taking the Long Way, including the removal of the word “Dixie” from the band’s iconic name. This is a group with a career that spans multiple decades, marking the alteration of its name and image as a clearly meaningful choice. This change came off the back of the monumental surge of Black Lives Matter protests and outcries against police violence and racism in America, activism that is nodded to on Gaslighter and evidently not taken lightly by this trio of women.
In a social climate as tumultuous as 2020, a mindful artist would likely find their work observing this turmoil. The Chicks are no exception. Gaslighter is a contemporary record in practice, but a classic Chicks work in spirit. These women uphold their standard of breaking standards on this LP, retaining the vigor that has given them the reputation they hold today. In a word, the Chicks are rulebreakers: On this record, they are working to shift a musical genre based on long-held traditionalist values by utilizing its tropes to completely flip the narrative. As musicians, The Chicks tell important stories on Gaslighter; but as country artists, they’re introducing a whole new conversation.
Gaslighter, at its surface, deals with the personal challenges of a failed relationship. Its titular track does just this, describing the tricks and deceit experienced in a relationship that has clearly fallen apart. The album largely focuses on this unnamed man who The Chicks refer to as “Gaslighter,” among a slew of other similar adjectives. There’s a pain and frustration in Gaslighter, both the song and the LP — however, there is also a lightness. Despite the sensitive and personal subject, The Chicks refuse to take themselves too seriously, resulting in a work that finds some comedy in all of its tragedy.
“Julianna Calm Down” is a track that embraces this lightness and transforms it into inspiration. A lyrical highlight of the album, “Julianna Calm Down” utilizes the traditional storytelling form of country music to explore ideas often marginalized in the genre’s space. Anxiety, mental health and female empowerment are spotlighted on this track, sung with a classic country twang that reveals the southern heart that still powers The Chicks’ musical style, even after 22 years. The narrative they seek to implore is encapsulated in lyrics such as these: “Sometimes, what’s going through your head/ Is just a temporary situation/ And light will soon be shed, oh.” “Julianna Calm Down” is a warm blanket, hot cup of tea and shoulder to cry on; it quickly becomes clear that The Chicks are artists who want to make this a space for everyone.
Traversing further, Gaslighter converses with a variety of complex, hypermodern themes that continually push it further than the cookie-cutter breakup album. “March March,” a clear highpoint in the record’s runtime, feels like an ode to protest activism, encompassing a tone of defiance underscored by its stomping production and rich lyrical claims. Beyond its suggestive title, the track’s content observes a triage of contemporary social issues ranging from gun violence to climate change, cleverly and powerfully echoing these issues from within a musical space that has become notable for overlooking them. This trio, however, faces them head-on, void of apology or hesitation. The Chicks’ own form of activism can be discerned here, layered in the subversion of traditional country tropes achieved by normalizing the abnormal.
In 2020, this defiant energy forefronted by The Chicks is the allure needed to draw in audiences, both new and old. Gaslighter is the group’s display of wit, showcasing an ability to adapt and continually innovate despite industry and cultural progression. Countless groups from the trio’s era have fallen short in this regard, losing audiences due to lack of interest. If its legendary status isn’t enough, The Chicks understand a key truth about music: It must always progress. Without evolution, the story of an artist and their work is no story at all — and Gaslighter is a testament to these womens’ understanding of this crucial fact. Stasis does not exist on Gaslighter, as it is a work that feels constantly in motion, reflecting a modernized understanding of its genre and place in a constantly changing cultural ecosystem.