Album Review: Sleater-Kinney - The Center Won't Hold
Sleater-Kinney making a political album in 2019 is by no means a surprise; the fact that they don’t make any specific references to the POTUS might be. Instead, in the boisterous and expansive The Center Won’t Hold, Sleater-Kinney have made an album about the importance of solidarity, unity, and – as ever - the power of women; topics that are vital in the current climate.
To help them bring it to life, they invited Annie Clark aka St. Vincent to join their sorority, taking up the producer’s chair for the record. It’s a collaboration that has caused plenty of commentary, certainly not all positive, about how she would affect the band’s sound. Further speculation was sparked in the wake of drummer Janet Weiss announcing her exit from Sleater-Kinney shortly after the album was announced. Not exactly a good look for a band that has always been hailed for their impressive interconnection. It’s likely then that The Center Won’t Hold’s production, and now the drumming, are likely to come under scrutiny from listeners.
It’s uncertain how much of the rattling, juddering introduction to opening track ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ can be attributed to the percussionist or the producer, but it sounds like a band snarling, pacing, bristling to escape from a cell. After a couple of minutes of Corin Tucker’s heaving, breathy vocals, Sleater-Kinney seem to have inflated to their full stature, their rage has reached its apex, and their monolithic rock force comes obliterating out of the track with unmistakable direction. Concerns over the band’s changing sound are summarily squashed under the furore of their zipping forward with the energy and heft of a dozen motorcycles.
It’s a weighty introduction to an album that flips back and forth between light and dark. The inter-related themes around feminine power and unification are constant as they rotate through songs that touch on different facets of their daily lives, always striving for human contact. Sometimes on The Center Won’t Hold Sleater-Kinney are the ones offering the strength, but more often they’re the vulnerable party looking for someone to lift them up.
Seemingly using music as a refuge from the calamitousness of modern life, Sleater-Kinney openly admit their hopelessness throughout. In the quaking pop-rocker ‘Reach Out’ Tucker openly talks about depression and isolation, stopping hearts in the affecting and sonically elevated chorus “Reach out/ darkness is winning again.” It’s Brownstein’s turn to admit her witlessness on ‘Can I Go On’, a vibrant song that reflects her comic side in its jovial unpredictability, while she shows her more considered side on the spare ‘Restless’. By writing these songs, Sleater-Kinney are sending a message to fans that they’ve all been through the same existential nadirs, but it’s by sharing their experiences with allies that they’ve gotten through them.
They quite literally discuss how the band has pulled them through in ‘LOVE’, a throw-away little song that does feel like a bit of a re-tread of last album’s ‘A New Wave’. They’re more successful on ‘The Future Is Here’, a stirring sing-along where Tucker is fortifying herself against the unseen horrors of the oncoming future by telling her friends “I need you more than I ever have.”
However, at other times, the band is mounting their own attack against the surrounding evil. This is most explicit in The Center Won’t Hold’s oozing central track ‘Ruins’, where they sing about demons and declare war on people who “eat the weak,” coming off like Megazord crunching through a metropolitan. This is before it turns into a full-on sci-fi melt-down, sounding like nothing they’ve ever made before with hovering alien synths and Tucker’s wordless voice banshee-like in the background of the towering inferno. ‘Ruins’ is the track that people will point to as Sleater-Kinney’s biggest departure – and is likely to split listeners’ opinions. ‘Bad Dance’ is also brazenly adventurous, but perhaps takes the idea of coven-like closeness a little too far, coming across like a bunch of theatrical wolf-people dancing in circles and chanting around a bonfire – fun, but also faintly ridiculous.
Perhaps their most effective tool against the toxic world is their sexuality, and that comes resounding out of the bounding lead single ‘Hurry On Home’. Brownstein is bold and unabashed, defining herself as “unfuckable, unlovable, unlistenable, unwatchable,” wrestling the power away from anyone who would try to shame her, and doing it extremely alluringly – especially backed by Tucker and Weiss’ unwavering instrumental force.
At the other end of the spectrum is the closing track of the album ‘Broken’, a simplistic piano ballad about Christine Blasey Ford and her bravery in testifying about her sexual assault at the hands of supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh; “she stood up for us and she testified/ ‘me too’ my body cried out when she spoke those lines.” It’s a truly gut-wrenching way to end the album, especially as Tucker’s electrifying voice quivers in the final admission “I’m breaking in two/ I’m broken inside.”
It’s a massive emotional weight to be left with at the end of The Center Won’t Hold, and one which Sleater-Kinney undoubtedly want listeners to sit with and consider for a while. Then, they’d probably suggest putting the album on again to remind yourself that freedom and light comes from friendship, cooperation and honesty. And as for who contributed what to the record, they'd tell you Sleater-Kinney has always been and will always be a singular unit that creates together – no matter who joins or leaves.
This article was originally published on The 405 - August 16th 2019