The storm of protest and counter-protest which followed the incident in London completely derailed the Chicks’ country music stardom. We can only wonder what might have been musically had they remained accepted by genre fans and the industry. As it was, there was a hiatus in recorded music.
The album (produced by Rick Rubin) marked a sea change in their musical style, a deliberate focus on their own compositions and very personal subject matter, and a defiant unwillingness to kowtow to country radio expectations. Every song is credited to the three women together with an assortment of non-Nashville co-writers, most frequently rock songwriter Dan Wilson.
The first shot was actually conciliatory lyrically, with ‘I Hope’, a gospel-infused song written with bluesman Keb’ Mo’ as a charity single to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina in the South in 2005. It is definitely not a country song, but it is pretty good, and has an optimistic message:
It’s okay for us to disagree
We can work it out lovingly
But this was not the path taken by the Chick’s new album, finally released in 2006.
The lead radio single was explosive, stating their refusal to bow down. ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ was uncompromising and undoubtedly powerful as it angrily recounts the aftermath:
Forgive – sounds good
Forget – I’m not sure I could
They say time heals everything
But I’m still waiting
I’m through with doubt
There’s nothing left for me to figure out
I’ve paid a price
And I’ll keep paying
I’m not ready to make nice
I’m not ready to back down
I’m still mad as hell and I don’t have time
To go round and round and round
It’s too late to make it right
I probably wouldn’t if I could
Cause I’m mad as hell
Can’t bring myself to do
What it is you think I should
I know you said
“Can’t you just get over it?”
It turned my whole world around
And I kinda like it
I made my bed and I sleep like a baby
With no regrets and I don’t mind sayin’
It’s a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her
Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they’d write me a letter
Saying that I better
Shut up and sing or my life will be over?
The single’s reception reflected the riven nature of contemporary debate, with those who had agreed with Natalie’s original statement acclaiming it, and those offended unimpressed. It received tepid airplay, peaking at #36 on the country chart, but sold exceptionally well, better than any previous single. This was reflected in responses to the album as a whole – decent sales, albeit lower than their previous albums since recruiting Natalie, but losing much of their country fanbase. They would never again make the top 40 on country radio. Going back to the single a decade on, and trying to view it divorced from the controversy it remains a very strong piece of work with the raw emotion still alive.
The next single, ‘Everybody Knows’, written with Gary Louris of alt-country group the Jayhawks, was not a good choice as it was rather dull and forgettable. The semi-title track, ‘The Long Way Around’ is better, again reflecting fiercely and unrepentantly on choice and consequence with nods to some of their past music:
It’s been two long years now
Since the top of the world came crashing down
And I’m gettin’ it back on the road now
But I’m taking the long way
Taking the long way around
I fought with a stranger and I met myself
I opened my mouth and I heard [or hurt?] myself
It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself
Guess I could have made it easier on myself
But I – I could never follow
‘Voice Inside My Head’, the album’s last theoretical attempt at a single, was a rock ballad written with Wilson and Linda Perry. I can’t imagine it ever succeeding as a single even in better times for the band, as although not completely explicit the subject matter appears to be the controversial one of a past, and perhaps regretted, abortion:
I was only a kid when I said goodbye to you
Ten summers ago
But it feels like yesterday
Lost, scared and alone
Nothing I could give to you
I tried, I really did
But I couldn’t find another way
And I want – I need somehow to believe
In the choice I made
Am I better off this way?
I can hear the voice inside my head
Saying you should be with me instead
Every time I’m feeling down
I wonder what would it be like with you around
I’m forever changed
By someone I never knew
Now I’ve got a place
I’ve got a husband and a child
But I’ll never forget
What I’ve given up in you
It’s not a subject I’m comfortable with myself and it seems like a deliberate provocation to choose as a single, especially after all the prior issues.
Motherhood is also the subject of ‘So Hard’, which bewails problems trying to conceive and the toll taken on the marital relationship. ‘Lullaby’ is a delicately pretty song cooing love for, I think, a new baby, surely the happiest and least contentious song on the album, with some lovely fiddle.
‘Bitter End’, written with Louris, is about the end of a fair weather friendship and has a pleasant Celtic feel.
‘Lubbock Or Leave It’ is Natalie’s vicious diss of the hypocrisy of her conservative home town, and features some echoey autotune.
‘Silent House’ is about Natalie’s grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and is clearly heartfelt but musically dreary. ‘Favorite Year’, written with Sheryl Crow, is quite mellow but not very memorable. ‘I Like It’ is poorly written and boring, and ‘Baby Hold On’ is pedestrian. ‘Easy Silence’ is a tribute to a husband offering respite from the turmoil outside (perhaps ironic given that all three of the marriages in existence at the time have now ended).
Even a dozen years on, the shadows of The Incident hang heavily over this album. To my ears it doesn’t really stand up on its own merits. With the exception of ‘Lullaby’, the strongest moments (e.g. ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’, ‘The Long Way Around’) are entirely rooted in their time and place. The production and songwriting both mostly fall outside country music, and on the whole only the group’s most devoted fans will truly enjoy this record.