Sleater-Kinney The Center Won't Hold Mom+Pop
Roll up, roll up, ladies and germs, and see, before your disbelieving eyes: the album that broke Sleater-Kinney! Produced by their very own Yoko, Annie Clark of St Vincent, this is – come closer and witness – the record so radical, it forced beloved and redoubtable drummer Janet Weiss to jump ship just to escape its weirdness.
Well, that’s the narrative inevitably set up by events, anyway. Almost immediately after Weiss announced her departure last month, vengeful eyes turned to Carrie Brownstein’s ex, with whom the trio had been working, since 2018, on their ninth album. These are sad times for Sleater-Kinney fans, no doubt, but to suggest St Vincent and her synths “broke up the band” is unforgivably basic. You can, of course, detect her freaky fingerprints here and there; you don’t hire a singular superstar for her first high-profile production job in order to make a straight-up words-and-guitar Sleater-Kinney record. But this doesn’t sound like a St Vincent album. It sounds like a Sleater-Kinney one, but more so, and more strangely so.
There were already hints in 2015 comeback No Cities to Love – a roaring resurrection of their core nervous energies – that Sleater-Kinney craved, after riding the reunion wave’s great goodwill, to range further. Most of all in its closer, Fade, with its weird, warped, underwater feel. And from the opening industrial clanks and closing grunge thrash of the title track to the grooving post-punk of lead single Hurry On Home, The Center Won’t Hold revels in that wanderlust, exploring dark textures, desolate spaces and violent, nasty sounds. Though less abrasive, perhaps the most striking departure is Reach Out, a dark peak that invites hands to the sky in allegiance, fulfilling the gothic promise of Corin Tucker’s new spidery eyeliner in lush fashion. It’s anthemic in a more stadium sense than they’ve ever been before, and it suits them.
Yet there are still sure handholds for the wary. Like Love, which pays tribute, in their 25th anniversary year, to Sleater-Kinney’s early days, with a playful pulse that recalls Devo’s Whip It: “Call the doctor, dig me out of this mess… a basement of our own, a mission to begin.” More unsettling than the sonic forays is the mood: we’re in starkly different emotional territory from the confident battle songs of No Cities to Love, and closer to the dark energy of One Beat, the record that followed 9/11 and the birth of Corin Tucker’s first child. The general malaise of public life is vividly present in Ruins, which romps in on a big grinding bass synth, describing “a demon… both ancient and new” that smashes buildings and eats planes. It’s a more personal anxiety and isolation, though, that dominates The Center Won’t Hold, from Reach Out via Hurry On Home and the ironically flippant Can I Go On, to Corin Tucker’s cry, on the subdued and moody The Future Is Here, “never have I felt so goddamn lost and alone”. Perhaps it reflects the record’s more isolated, piecemeal writing process, perhaps just the prevailing melancholy.
A little hope flourishes at the bottom of the box of horrors. The Dog/The Body, which begins with a circling, obsessive two-note lick, lost in the same abject infatuation as Hurry On Home, builds to a drunken hug of a chorus with the whole band joining in, before Broken, the closing piano torch song, avows solidarity with Dr Christine Blasey Ford and survivors of all kinds (“She stood up for us, when she testified… me too, my body cried out when she spoke those lines”). Still, you’re left with a sense of songs lost in the fog, falcons that cannot hear the falconer, to reference the Yeats poem that gave the album its name.
And with Weiss’ departure, we’re all left feeling a little lost. Whatever her reasons, it feels like a terrible shame. The prophetically-titled The Center Won’t Hold is a sure stride rather than a misstep, and now – as after The Woods, the 2005 rock exploration that preceded their long hiatus – we’re swept up in their forward momentum, only to be left hanging. Let’s cling, in our confusion, to Bad Dance, a glorious hoodoo-punk hoedown that greets oncoming apocalypse with a defiant “fuck it, let’s party”, and features some of Sleater-Kinney’s most wonderfully wicked lyrics ever (“My truth is slack and loose/ My morals are unsound”). Whatever happens next – with the band, with the world – let’s dance on as long as we can.