I guess if you’re going to copy someone, Taylor Swift isn’t a terrible choice.
Tomorrow marks the seventeenth anniversary of Natalie Maines’s defiant statement proclaiming that she and the other members of the Dixie Chicks were “ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Her protest of George W. Bush’s push towards war with Iraq sparked a vicious backlash that is still talked about today, and the Chicks’s red-hot career went ice cold almost overnight. The trio dropped a response to the controversy back in 2006 with “Not Ready To Make Nice,” but otherwise the trio has remained mostly out of the spotlight.
Fast forward to 2020, and…honestly, you could argue that things have not only not improved in 17 years, but they’ve gotten much worse: Our political discourse has become even more vitriolic and corrosive, and country music has fallen into a bit of an identity crisis, bouncing from one trend to another as it tries to keep the whole darn tent from collapsing. This is the environment the Dixie Chicks step into with their surprise new single “Gaslighter,” which will headline their first album release in fourteen years. The song is a power anthem from a narrator that’s had it up to here with their insignificant other, and while it’s a decent offering, I can’t help but feel like it oversells its premise, and I’m not sure it stands up next to the trio’s prior material.
The production isn’t really anything to write home about here: The vocals are the star here, and the arrangement is only here to support the story. At its core, this is a fairly-standard guitar-and-drum arrangement, with a banjo and some stirring percussion tossed in for the choruses (a piano is also buried deep in the background and is barely noticeable). The mix does a nice job driving the song forward and giving the track some decent energy, but the guitars feel like placeholders and and add little of interest to the sound, and the drums are wildly inconsistent (the varying volume levels and instrument usage make them truly impactful only in fits and starts). The vocals are so loud in the mix (and honestly sound a bit robotic when the harmony vocals jump in on the chorus) that the arrangement doesn’t really get a chance to establish any sort of mood, and thus the production’s biggest redeeming quality is that it stays the heck of the writing’s way, at the cost of being neither interesting nor memorable.
The vocals here are a bit of a mixed bag as well. From a technical perspective, Maines doesn’t have the blazing fastball she had seventeen years ago, and her flow feels unnecessarily choppy, as if she’s having trouble keeping up with the song’s tempo. (Her vocal power suffers at the tail end of rapid-fire sections as well.) Her range seems as good as before, however, and what hasn’t changed is her distinctive tone and effectively-emotive charisma, especially when it comes to channeling anger (I’m getting some strong “Goodbye Earl” vibes here that serve as a reminder that Maines was Miranda Lambert before Lambert was). Maines’s vengeful attitude is pretty effective at setting a sharp tone for the song—if anything, it may be a little too effective (after listening to this, it’s hard to believe anyone would mess with this narrator). As far as Emily Robison and Martie Maguire go, it feels like they were pushed to the sidelines here: They don’t add anything to the production besides the banjo, and while their harmonies add more presence and power to the chorus, they don’t quite show the vocal chemistry that they did on previous singles (there seem to be some echoey vocal effects going on here, so that could be part of the problem.) Put it all together and it’s a decent showing overall, but it’s not something I’d actively seek out.
The writing suffers from its share of flaws, most notably a striking dissonance between the story and the hook. The story here is a bit of a mix between Miranda Lambert’s “White Liar” and Dan Seals’s “Everything That Glitters Is Not Gold”: The narrator follows an ambitious partner as they chase their dreams, but said partner is never satisfied and ends up betraying the narrator’s trust and lying (a lot) about it. Such two-timing cretins are nothing new in country music, but outside of a throwaway line on the bridge (“Tried to say I’m crazy/Babe you know I’m not crazy”), there’s no indication of any gaslighting that would make the narrator question their reality, which makes the hook feel like an awkward fit the subject. (The “repeating all of the mistakes of your father” also feels really out of place, as neither side’s family is ever discussed in the story.) I’m also not a fan of the repetitive “lie, lie, lie, lie, lie” lines that only server to fill space, and we’re never given any details about what the other person was actually lying about. In the end, this boils down to a woman who is done with her untrustworthy other half and is ready to call them what they are, and that’s a pretty crowded lane to inhabit with something this unremarkable.
“Gaslighter” isn’t the world-beater the Dixie Chicks may have been hoping for, but it’s still pretty okay, which is more than I can say for lot of songs on the radio today. The production is a bit lukewarm and the writing doesn’t flesh out the story terribly well, but the trademark spirit of the trio is still here, and given all the other comebacks we’ve seen over the last few years, why shouldn’t the Dixie Chicks get a shot too? I don’t think this will be enough to bring the group back to prominence, but I’m kind of rooting for it regardless (after what happened, they deserve at least another shot at a country chart-topper), and if nothing else it’s a testament to the perseverance and tenacity of three women who have faced the wrath of some dark forces over the years.
Hank Jr. was only half right: Country boys and girls can survive.
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins to see what you think.