Taking the Long Way
omewhere between the amphitheater protests, anti-Toby t-shirts, and the first time Diane Sawyer ever played hardball, the phrase "Dixie Chicks" stopped merely signifying a wildly successful pop-country act that cranked out brilliant chart-topping hits, and started becoming shorthand for the way many people across the political spectrum thought about the relationship between art and politics.
All of a sudden, “Dixie Chicks” could mean treason, or talking out of your ass, or even a woman’s place, but it could also mean red-state revolution, brave dissent behind enemy lines, the kind of ideological investment that attracts liberals who typically turn their noses up at country and leads to dilemmas like the recent hand-wringer “So, um, I don't really listen to country, but should I buy the Dixie Chicks album on principle?” from the I Love Music message board.
When an artist reaches the sort of cultural saturation point where the things they represent threaten to overwhelm the music they play, the surest response has been retreat, whether it be a narrowing of scope or a willful abandonment of the pop-palatable sounds that helped draw everyone’s attention in the first place (i.e. the reason why Mr. Lif and Conor Oberst don’t have to worry about this shit). Examples are well-known and exhaustively documented. Dylan holing up at Woodstock after the motorcycle crash. Springsteen following Born in the USA with the low-key Tunnel of Love. Nirvana and Radiohead sidestepping their ascension as corporate rock saviors with In Utero and Kid A, respectively. Even Garth Brooks’ Chris Gaines fiasco fits here.
Taking the Long Way is certainly no attempt at career suicide, but it is a record deeply informed by the extraneous bullshit of notorious fame. We’re not talking Mike Skinner level headaches here either, where celebrity’s cruelest misfortune is having scores of girls, but still not being able to pull a supermodel. The Chicks are sitting on top of the world while dealing with death threats and boycotts. Hiding out in plain sight is the only option.
Surely it would have been foolish to make an album that acted like nothing had changed, but you get the sense the girls are actually enormously proud of their iconoclasm, particularly in the opener, “The Long Way Around,” where lead singer Natalie Maines contrasts her friends’ less worldly lives with her own in a way that’s neither condescending or apologetic. In fact, there’s plenty of defiance to be found throughout, on the already-infamous single “Not Ready to Make Nice” as well as the less-topical romp “I Like It,” where Maines vows “you won’t be able to bring me down.”
But that’s the thing with this record—even its scant moments of fun sound desperate. The flippant, nose-thumbing Chicks of “White Trash Wedding,” “Sin Wagon,” and “Some Days You Gotta Dance” are long gone, replaced by harried, weary women who seek out the people and places that really matter and then hold on like hell. Maines takes solace and shelter wherever she can find it, ideally in a loving partner like the one she describes in “Easy Silence” and “Lullaby,” but sometimes a memory must suffice (“Favorite Year”), or even a might-have-been (“Voice Inside My Head”). Of course, spiritual faith is tried on for size too, though Maines can’t help counter-punching with the winkingly-titled “Lubbock or Leave It.”
In context, Taking the Long Way is thoroughly fascinating, but from a strictly sonic perspective it’s hard to fully support the Chicks’ latest turn. The pop gloss and progressive sheen of Wide Open Spaces and Fly was largely killed off by Home’s bluegrass makeover, but even those O Brother banjos were jaunty and spirited compared to the mid-tempo poise of studio album number four. Luckily, the Chicks have never sounded so harmonically rich, especially on the gently descending “Everybody Knows” (co-written by Gary Louris, which explains why it’d fit perfectly on the Jayhawks’ minor classic Tomorrow the Green Grass) as well as the heart-rending Alzheimer’s-affected “Silent House.”
Those voices alone are enough to devastate, and they’re the reason this album deserves mention among the year’s best. Yet the hope still lingers that when silly controversies finally scatter to the four winds, Natalie, Emily, and Martie can all step back into the sunlight, take a deep breath, and return to conquering wide open spaces once again.