Perhaps the most pleasant discovery of doing The People’s Albums — a series I hope to continue sometime soon — was finding that The Dixie Chicks are actually kinda great. They’re not a group that often gets recognized as such, possibly because there still isn’t anything all that cool about the late ’90s explosion of country music into the mainstream. But what set The Dixie Chicks apart is that they remained uniquely true to their bluegrass roots when a lot of their contemporaries were basically making pop-rock with a little bit of twang thrown in. Of course, they were ostracized completely from the country music establishment after their comments about George W. Bush in relation to the Iraq War (back when celebrities could get canceled for not loving the President), so they unsurprisingly embraced pop a little more after this media whirlwind. Now renamed The Chicks, they’ve done a little bit of both — getting a bit away from country music while also retaining the musical touches that have always been at the heart of their sound.
As has been the case with a lot of the albums I’ve reviewed this week, I was expecting this album to be worthwhile, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite this good. Maybe I was skeptical about the presence of producer Jack Antonoff, who admittedly has been involved in some of my favorite pop music of the past few years, but seemed like an awkward fit for The Chicks. Fortunately, Antonoff usually tends to lend a pretty light touch to his pop records and manages to do the same here. There are a few modern production touches here and there, but the album retains a fairly organic sound by focusing on acoustic guitars, violins, and Natalie Maines’ always fiery voice as well as its harmonizing with sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer.
I think another reason I was somewhat skeptical about this album is that when an artist becomes as successful as The Dixie Chicks did, you have to wonder if they have anything new to say this far removed from their heyday. After all, reunion tours will sell out whether or not you have new songs to squeeze in between the hits that everybody came to hear. But from the album’s opening title track, it becomes apparent that they have a lot to say about relationships at middle age. This is undeniably a divorce record. Which isn’t all that surprising considering all three of The Chicks have lived through their own, though I have to assume the majority of these songs are about Natalie Maines’ recent divorce in 2019.
I always feel a little uncomfortable prying into artists’ personal lives when talking about their music, but it’s a little hard not to with this album because Maines really does open up all of her scars from a failed marriage here. Some of it involves dwelling on the past, some of it involves trying to move on to other relationships, and some of it involves trying to pull through for your kids’ sake. It’s not the type of thing I particularly relate to, but much like last year’s film Marriage Story, this album makes it clear that going through a divorce can be a gut-wrenching experience, but it can also make you a more fully-realized version of yourself.
While this sounds like it might be a bummer of a listen for a group that was once as plucky and fun as the Dixie Chicks, the album does still have its share of catchy moments. “Texas Man” in particular has the same kind of irresistible verve that defined the band’s early work, while more restrained tracks like “For Her” and “Juliana Calm Down” have the kind of muted hooks that will sneakily stick with you. Though for the most part, this is a fairly subdued, reflective album, which seems like the kind of album most people are in the mood for right now. I feel like some of the wind was taken out of Gaslighter‘s sails by another reflective album released by a very famous Dixie Chicks fan a week after its release, but as has been the case during the past few months, sometimes it’s just nice to catch up with familiar faces that you haven’t heard from in a while.