''Forgive, sounds good. Forget, I'm not sure I could.'' Thus begins ''Not Ready to Make Nice,'' the defiant first single from the Dixie Chicks' new album Taking the Long Way, declaring to the world that their lives will be forever marked by the comment heard 'round the world.
It has been three long years since lead singer Natalie Maines remarked from a London stage that she's ashamed that President George W. Bush is a fellow Texan. The culture war that ensued left the Chicks blacklisted at country radio and alienated many of their core fans, leading some to question whether the trio had committed career suicide. But like a phoenix, the Chicks have risen from the ashes, reinventing themselves on the most sophisticated album of their career.
For Taking the Long Way, their fourth studio album, the Dixie Chicks enlisted legendary producer Rick Rubin, whose credits range from groundbreaking albums by the Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C., to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to a series of albums that resuscitated Johnny Cash's career in the late '90s and brought his music to a new audience. The result is a remarkable collection of songs that is deeply personal and vociferously unrepentant.
Under Rubin's guidance, the Dixie Chicks' acoustic country has been infiltrated by the Southern California rock of Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, but their Texas roots still shine through with flourishes of banjo, mandolin and pedal steel. Like Donnie and Marie, Taking the Long Way is a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll -- and far superior to anything the Osmonds ever recorded.
For the first time in their career, the Chicks co-wrote all 14 songs on the album. Their all-star cast of songwriting collaborators includes Semisonic's Dan Wilson, the Jayhawks' Gary Louris, Crowded House's Neil Finn, Sheryl Crow, Linda Perry, Keb' Mo and Pete Yorn. Their band includes members of The Heartbreakers and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. John Mayer and Bonnie Raitt make subtle contributions as well. Even with all that talent on board, the Chicks clearly rule the roost with their autobiographical songs and skilled musicianship.
Taking the Long Way, with its undercurrent of melancholy, is darker and more somber than the Chicks' previous releases. Sadly, the album lacks the fun and youthful enthusiasm of a ''Goodbye, Earl'' or ''White Trash Wedding,'' but it makes up for it in the depth and quality of its songcraft. A bit world-weary, the Chicks wear their politics and their still-raw emotions on their sleeves on this collection of primarily mid-tempo songs.
The first half of the album is strewn with thinly veiled references to ''the incident'' and its repercussions. The most direct of the songs, ''Not Ready to Make Nice,'' with its swelling, goose bump-inducing string arrangement and Natalie's impassioned recounting of outright rage and death threats directed at her, is one of the most powerfully political pop songs ever written. It is worth the price of admission for this song alone.
On album opener ''The Long Way Around,'' Natalie admits that ''I could have made it easier on myself / But I, I could never follow.'' She boasts that she ''wouldn't kiss all the asses they told me to'' and makes it clear that the Chicks are striking out on their own journey, not content to live the small town life embraced by so many of their high school classmates -- and the majority of country music fans. ''Lubbock or Leave It,'' a rowdy, redneck-baiting rocker, also takes shots at small town narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy. In ''Bitter End,'' they even have a kiss-off song for their former fans and fair-weather friends: ''Farewell to old friends / let's raise a glass to the bitter end."
Politics aside, the second half of the album finds the Chicks addressing family matters and subjects that are virtually unheard of in country music. ''Silent House,'' one of the album's numerous standout tracks, is a frank examination of watching a loved one struggle with Alzheimer's, from which Natalie's grandmother suffers. The Chicks' gorgeous three-part harmonies are front and center on the touching chorus. Infertility, which has afflicted sisters Emily and Martie, is the subject of ''So Hard,'' and the excellent ''Voice Inside My Head'' finds a young woman questioning the choice she made to give her child up for adoption, sight unseen, ten years earlier. With seven children among them, the trio pays homage to motherhood on the gentle ''Lullaby,'' an acoustic ballad stylistically similar to songs on their last album, Home.
On Taking the Long Way, the biggest-selling female band in history re-stakes its claim for the title and hopes to continue the crossover success of their 2002 cover of ''Landslide.'' Let's just hope that unlike radio, the public won't ignore this magnificent collection, a contender for album of the year.