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Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but even hell hasn’t seen the likes of Natalie Maines. Infamously political for denouncing the actions of former President Bush back in the early 2000s — and punished extensively by a Conservative fanbase for breaking rank — Maines and her Chicks are back, with a new name, and this time they’ve got yet another bad man in their sights.
The premise of their new album Gaslighter feels eerily political in the era when essays accusing the president of this psychological manipulation tactic have gone viral, but at its core, this album is decidedly a personal one. For the last several years, Maines has been undergoing a messy, public divorce from Adrian Pasdar, her now-former husband of almost two decades. After meeting at the wedding of fellow Chicks member Emily Strayer (formerly Robison), Maines and Pasdar were married until 2017, when Maines filed for divorce citing the old standby, “irreconcilable differences.”
In the ensuing two-year battle, Pasdar infamously tried to invalidate the couple’s pre-nup agreement, openly admitted that Maines paid for nearly everything during the family’s tenure, attempted to get his hands on any and all new Chicks music — in case it validated a confidentiality clause in the pre-nup he was trying to nullify — and asked for up to $60,000 a month from Maines in spousal support. Whew. Throughout it all, Maines has been relatively silent about the proceedings, but that dam has broken on Gaslighter.
Pasdar’s instincts that the new album might have a thing or two to do with his behavior were spot on, as the album opens with the title track “Gaslighter” — also the lead single for this cycle — and embarks on a hero’s journey that is Maines’ grappling with his betrayal and the unraveling of her family. Gaslighter is a story that flips the script on Tammy Wynette’s steadfast, grin-and-bear-it “Stand By Your Man” and lands much more firmly in the camp of The Chicks’ recent collaborator, Beyonce, whose scorched earth excoriation of her husband’s infidelity on the towering record Lemonade become a new standard for long-suffering wives taking their power back.
Similar contemporaries like Bjork, and perhaps a bit closer to home, Miranda Lambert have written openly about the dissolutions of their long-term romantic partnerships and marriages in recent years, blowing the door wide open for contemporary women to discuss what it feels like to be single again in middle age. But, even with the high-water mark of Lemonade, the rarer infidelity story that ends in reconciliation, it’s unlikely that any albums before or after Gaslighter will stand as more of a landmark on the subject matter. It is, in a word, monumental.
Considering this is The Chicks’ first album in fourteen years, and Maines’ marriage lasted for seventeen, it’s almost a summary of her entire relationship — and what she’s been through in the aftermath. And since it is their first new material in a decade and a half, the anticipation from fans who have stayed loyal through political turmoil and the advent of the social media era is palpable. From the searing opener, the record segues into “Sleep At Night,” where Maines gets into the nitty-gritty details of hearing about the infidelity from her “husband’s girlfriend’s husband” and considers the implications her ex’s behavior will have on their two young sons. It’s the kind of barn-burner that would be heavy-handed or too depressing in a weaker songwriter’s hands, but buoyed by signature Chicks harmonies, and flexing between beat-driven bombast and sweeping balladry, it’s actually one of the album’s strongest tracks.
Like anyone returning to the realm of singledom after thinking that chapter had been closed forever, Maines and company muse through new possibilities and reawakened desires on “Texas Man,” a much-needed, light-hearted charmer to bring some light and heat to an often dark record. This trio have always deftly balanced difficult, heavy subjects and warmer, sweeter ones, and more grace appears later on the album for “Hope It’s Something Good,” with Maines wishing her ex the best, with a tad more compassion than many listeners will probably feel.
The album really hits its stride on the two core tracks “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Tights On My Boat.” The former lays out the whole story of Maines meeting her husband and moving on from the relationship, the latter gets into the kind of iconic kiss-off specifics that we all want to hear, while sticking to a finger-picked, rollicking sweetness to make the lyrical punches connect all the harder. Within the specifics of her own betrayal, Maines has crafted a kind of universal anthem that is easily one of the best songs released in 2020.
Later, “Julianna Calm Down” directly addresses the emotional undertaking of getting divorced in public, and keeping a brave face in spite of internal emotional turmoil, and “Young Man” considers how her sons will rebuild their idea of not just their father, but manhood itself. Another standout, “March March” is one of the few tracks to focus on subject matter outside the divorce, considering how Maines and The Chicks have carved a path for themselves that falls far outside the bounds of what most musicians, and arguably, most people, would undertake. But even if it’s a slightly different topic, the track fits seamlessly with the themes of independence, resilience, and compassion that the album ultimately embraces.
Longtime fans will not be disappointed in this towering, feisty comeback, which combines all the elements of The Chicks past, and culminates in an epic coming-of-age story that sees this group shedding not just the “Dixie” in their name, but other more personal toxic patterns and beliefs. Without pulling any punches, Maines, along with Strayer and her sister Martie Maguire, have crafted an album that digs deep into the grief and loss of divorce, and comes out the other side with electricity, grace, and ultimately, a sense of hope. After the hellfire and the fury, after the gaslighting, the pain, and the whole damn thing, this album yields something pure and uncompromising: A group of women who won’t back down, who continue to live and sing their truth, whether it comes to an entire industry, or a cheating husband.
Gaslighter is out 7/17 via Columbia Records. Get it here.