The Olympia trio go big and bold on St. Vincent-produced Mom + Pop debut
Album: The Center Won’t Hold
Label: Mom + Pop
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
It’s not the album launch Sleater-Kinney was expecting.
Months of the speculation about what kind of music the band would create with producer St. Vincent (real name: Annie Clark), only for drummer Janet Weiss to quit the band six weeks before the album’s release and issue a blunt statement basically saying the end result wasn’t exactly her cup of tea: “The band is heading in a new direction and it’s time for me to move on.”
Not to mention the irony of releasing an album that opens with a song called “The Center Won’t Hold,” and closes with one called “Broken.” Even the fractured faces of the album’s cover art suggest a disintegration in progress. As Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein ruefully joked to the New York Times, “We should’ve called the record Let’s Stay Together.”
Yes, The Center Won’t Hold does see Sleater-Kinney pursuing a new direction, one that’s even more extreme than the leap from One Beat (2002) to The Woods (2005). There’s a sharpness, a hard edge, a new angularity to the music that’s evident in the industrial clanging which opens the first song on the record. Indeed, the differences are such that for most of the opening track, you might not even recognize that it’s Sleater-Kinney you’re listening to (the giveaway is when guitarist Corin Tucker’s voice vaults into overdrive at the end — imagine having to do that every night on tour!).
And it’s not just the sound that’s different. There’s a whole new Sleater-Kinney “package.” As Brownstein told the Times, she wanted to emphasize the band’s visual identity (and the Times also notes it’s the first time a Sleater-Kinney album has had a credit for “creative directors”). There’s the startling image on the cover of the “Hurry On Home” single, which depicts Brownstein with her head seemingly turned around the wrong way, and her bare bottom on display (Brownstein had suggested the whole band be naked; the others demurred). If you were lucky, you might’ve seen what Rolling Stone called their “dark, gothic energy,” when the band played “Hurry On Home” on the Tonight Show; weirdly, the clip has since been taken down, and seems to no longer be available online.
I first saw Sleater-Kinney perform January 12, 1996, in Seattle, when Toni Gogin was their drummer (their third). And I’ve never forgotten how transfixed I was from their very first song, “Call the Doctor,” held spellbound by their raging power (especially that chorus!). For me, they became one of those bands of whom you say, “You need to hear this!” to everyone you know. I followed them faithfully as they became indie rock darlings, and couldn’t believe they’d break up after releasing their most accomplished album (The Woods). When they reformed, I flew to Spokane, Washington, to see their very first reunion show (at one point, Brownstein asked the crowd, “How many people here are actually from Spokane?”). When I interviewed Tucker about her band, Filthy Friends, in 2017, I made sure to ask “Isn’t it about time for another Sleater-Kinney album?” once we got the Filthy Friends questions out of the way.
But I was at first underwhelmed by “Hurry on Home,” the first single released from this new album, jarred by the ululating harmonies, the way Brownstein’s vocal affectations seemed too forced, and the frankly mundane sentiment of the kicker: “You got me used to loving you.” But it makes more sense in the context of the album as a whole. For The Center Won’t Hold is a record that reinvents the band. It takes all of the ingredients of Sleater-Kinney, pulls them apart, slices and dices them, throws them into the air, and reassembles them in ways that are as unexpected as they are unsettling.
VIDEO: Sleater-Kinney – “Hurry On Home” (lyric video)
It’s also the grimmest, bleakest album Sleater-Kinney have ever released — and that’s taking into account the occasional upbeat musical moods on the album (e.g. the jagged rhythms of “Bad Dance”). Tucker has never sounded so mournful. “The future’s here, and we can’t go back,” she sadly notes in the “The Future is Here,” grasping for a liferaft to hold onto while navigating turbulent waters. “Reach out,” she pleads in the song of that name, though the battle sounds lost before it’s even begun: “Darkness is winning again.” A squalling, roiling guitar only adds to the sense of overwhelming despair. “Everyone I know is tired,” Brownstein sings in an anguished tone at the beginning of “Can I Go On,” posing the existential question of the day.
The musical soundscape is also dramatically different. Previously, Sleater-Kinney had a clean two-guitars-and-drums sound. Straightforward, to the point. This album is raw, noisy, full of distortions. I do miss the interplay between Brownstein and Tucker’s vocals, but their voices are still pushed to extremes; listen to that high wailing voice in “Ruins,” which sounds uncannily like a theremin. Conversely, “Restless” adopts a quieter and more contemplative tone than we’ve heard from Sleater-Kinney before.
It’s not all sturm und drang. “Love” is a bright, fond look back at Sleater-Kinney’s own history (indie rock’s own “Creeque Alley”), an unabashed pop delight that you can’t help but bop along to. But lest things get too perky, the album ends with the somber “Broken.” It’s a piano-driven ballad, a devastating song about the trauma of sexual violence and the emotional toll it exacts, sung with heartbreaking sensitivity by Tucker. Two lines reference the testimony of Dr. Christine Ford at the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, but the song addresses a deeper, universal hurt; pushing away the pain because otherwise you risk being overwhelmed by it. “I really can’t fall apart right now,” Tucker sings. “But I’m breaking in two. ’Cause I’m broken inside.”
VIDEO: Sleater-Kinney/Carrie and Corin perform “Broken” from The Center Won’t Hold
The Center Won’t Hold is the album that makes it clear Sleater-Kinney didn’t reunite to revisit the ground they’d already covered. It was only worth doing if there were more, and different, things they could do, new territories to explore. For any naysayers, the lyrics of “Love” spell out the band’s views quite succinctly:
And we can be rough
And we can be smooth
There’s nothing to hide
And nothing to prove
Sleater-Kinney is dead; long live Sleater-Kinney.
VIDEO: Sleater-Kinney – “The Center Won’t Hold”