Natalie Maines, the lead singer of The Chicks (formerly The Dixie Chicks), has never resiled from showing us what is on her mind and in her heart. Her voice is an instrument of truth in that whatever she’s feeling can be heard in it. Either she recognised early on that it would be like that or she decided that that’s how it would be, but it has to have shaped the songs The Chicks write – and that means her bandmates, Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer, have to commit to the truth as well.
The Chicks’ last studio release, 2006’s Taking the Long Way, was written and recorded in the wake of Maine daring to express an opinion onstage when apparently she was meant to ‘shut up and sing’. The Chicks were ‘cancelled’ before that verb was used in that way, and their response was to come roaring out with an album that was not only their best but which reaffirmed that they were a trio of talent, skill and passion, united in their vision. They showed their work, and it was phenomenal. ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ remains one of the best, most articulate cries of defiance in modern culture, Maines’s exhortation to herself to not do what was expected of her – to make nice – and, in the process, telling her audience it’s all right if they don’t want to make nice either.
It is clear on their new album, Gaslighter, that they are still not ready to make nice – actually, they will never be – and we are all the beneficiaries of that. This album is also a cry of defiance and, as with Taking the Long Way, The Chicks are not pretending its context is something other than what all their fans know it to be: in this case, the end of Maines’s marriage.
Some songwriters might use metaphors to hide the real story. After Taking the Long Way The Chicks did not really have the option of hiding, even if they wanted to. They announced their intentions for this album with the first, titular single, which set the tone for what happened to Maines, and they have continued it with the latest single, ‘Sleep at Night’. For much of the album the focus is intensely personal. But, of course, the personal can also be universal – and The Chicks became world famous in part because they are so good at making their stories relatable to so many people. They exquisitely understand their role as artists: to connect their lives to ours, to make what is often a sacrifice of privacy in the name of service to others. If that sounds grandiose, it’s because it is grand. Each artist cannot know how many people find solace as well as joy in their work, and usually they have to give up part of themselves in order for that to happen. The bigger the audience, the bigger that sacrifice – and the pitfalls that come with it. The Chicks have not recorded new music for 14 years. The fact that they are back now is, in part, because we need them.
Gaslighter is a glorious collection of emotions, anger primarily amongst them, artfully expressed by the incredible musicality of the band’s three members. Maines’s voice is, as ever, the star. It is unadorned yet polished; heartbreaking in moments both quiet and loud. She is a superconductor, plugging her heart into yours, so even if you’re not paying attention she’s going to affect you. Maguire and Strayer build the structure around her to make that happen – put Maines with other musicians and songwriters and the result would not be the same. That after so many years away from their joint enterprise they can rejoin and regroup and produce something so powerful is not unexpected, but somehow surprising, in the way that magnificence continues to surprise. Their earlier albums might have had catchier singles for radio and sweeter melodies, but they were less whole works and more collections of songs. Gaslighter is an organism exploding into life yet keeping its form. It is powerful and beautiful.
Gaslighter is out now through Sony Music Australia.