A couple of weeks after I graduated college, as a sort of birthday present to myself, I drove down to Washington, D.C. to see a couple of my favorite bands to play a show together at D.A.R. Constitution Hall, an old and ornate venue in the middle of the city. Belle And Sebastian, still a vaguely mysterious and culty concern, were headlining, but I was at least as interested in seeing their openers. Within seconds of them stepping onstage, though, it was pretty obvious that Constitution Hall was the wrong venue for Sleater-Kinney: Bare-bones setup at the middle of a gigantic stage, playing to an audience obviously there to dance horribly to the cuddlier headliner. (Seriously, Belle And Sebastian fans cannot dance.) I’d already seen them play a couple of packed, sweaty shows at the Black Cat, and they were transcendent there, but this building was a different beast entirely. So here’s how they responded. Without saying a word, they stepped to center-stage and belted out a swelling, ferocious song that I’d never heard before. I remember sitting there, thinking to myself, “Is this a cover? Or something from that first album that I still haven’t heard? Fuck, I should buy that first album.” But then they played another one that I didn’t recognize, and it was even better. And then another. And another. Pretty soon, I stopped worrying about where I could find these songs, or whether they’d play “Little Babies,” and just let the brain-melt set in. When they finished their last one, Corin Tucker tossed her hair back and spoke to the audience for the first time: “Thanks. We’re Sleater-Kinney, and that was our new album.” After that, everything Belle And Sebastian did felt entirely anticlimactic. The album in question, One Beat, wouldn’t come out for another two or three months. It’s now my favorite album that anyone has released this century.
One Beat is one of those albums that I get all religious and fervent about; I can remember wanting to fight every rock critic who didn’t have it at the top of a 2002 best-of list. (“The Streets? Fuck outta here with that.”) We’re not getting another album like it, from anyone, ever. The circumstances that went into the album’s creation are just not duplicable. Corin Tucker, one of the preeminent songwriters of her generation, has a baby, her first. It’s not an easy birth: Kid born two months premature, in the hospital for a while. He turns out OK. Then, a few months after the kid’s birth, terrorists hijack planes and use them to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands. The American government panics, launches two wars, begs everyone to keep buying stuff. In the years since One Beat, I’ve had a couple of kids myself, and I can attest to the furious, all-consuming protectiveness that takes over a new parent. What I can’t imagine is how it feels to be a new parent who almost lost her baby, and who’s watching the world go insane with violence and stupidity around her. Corin Tucker doesn’t have to imagine it. She lived it, and she made an album about it. That album is One Beat.
Sleater-Kinney was one of the great American rock trios, so god knows I don’t want to underplay Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss. They’re all over the album. Brownstein has those cuttingly coy vocal interjections and those fuzzed-out guitar-hero leads. Weiss remains one of the most instinctive rock drummers ever, her controlled boom keeping time but also filling all the spaces that need filling. Anyone who’s heard the Wild Flag album knows what they can do, even without Tucker. And the complicated, intuitive guitar interplay between Tucker and Brownstein — those riffs coiling and winding and answering each other like old friends in conversation — was always an absolute wonder to behold. But more than any other Sleater-Kinney album, One Beat belongs to Corin Tucker. This is the album where she really unleashed that feral, passionate howl, where it found the deepest extremes of gut-scrape. And her lyrics are just shattering things, all love and fear and anger and sadness and hope.
It’s hard to even conceive of it now, but nobody much was saying anything critical of America’s government or its leaders in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. You just weren’t supposed to, and that flustered fear trickled though to just about every corner of society. Even as George W. Bush’s warhawking became more obviously terrifying and insane, he got free reign to do whatever; ask every Democratic Senator who voted for the Iraq war. There were articles where leftist pundits wondered why indie bands weren’t writing protest songs, and it was probably for the same reason that nobody was doing shit protest-wise; the wave of demonstrations around the inevitable beginning of the Iraq war felt like too little, too late. Well, Bush only gets half a bar on One Beat, but it’s enough: “And the president hides while working men rush in and give their lives.” That was from “Far Away,” the opener, which feels like a vital historical document now, Tucker unloading all the confusion and terror she felt while nursing her baby and watching the towers fall on TV.
“Far Away” is one of a handful of explicitly political songs on One Beat, and those songs are all vital and ferocious and still powerful now. But One Beat isn’t strictly a protest album, and the songs about other things still bring that same intensity and commitment. “Oh!” is a fun riot of a song about falling in love, losing yourself in someone; less than a year after One Beat came out, I used it to open the first mixtape that I gave the woman who’s now my wife. “Step Aside” is a different sort of love song — it’s the members of Sleater-Kinney singing about each other, about the (clearly audible) joy that they found playing music together. And the songs that sound something like filler here — “Prisstina,” “Light Rail Coyote” — would be highlights of just about any other album. But there’s one song here that just levels me more than the others, and it’s “Sympathy,” the closer.
There are four songs that never fail to make me tear up a little whenever I play them: “Sympathy,” the Mountain Goats’ “Has Thou Considered The Tetrapod?,” and — if I’m a little drunk, which I always am when I play them — UGK’s “One Day” and the Pogues’ version of “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” “Sympathy” is the song where Tucker thanks God for the safe birth of her son — about the squarest thing you could possibly sing about. But it gets at that joy and triumph and gratitude — and the raw, urgent, world-obliterating fear and despair and protectiveness behind them. Tucker sings about hating the doctor who tells her everything bad that’s happening, about trying to figure out what any of it means, about the smile on her kid’s face. As the music drops out and the rest of the band chants almost animalistically behind her, Tucker yowls, “When the moment strikes, it takes you by surprise, leaves you naked in the face of death and life. There is no righteousness in your darkest moment. We’re all naked in the face of what we’re most afraid of.” Then her voice drops a bit, to the extent that a voice as huge as hers can drop: “And I’m so sorry for those who didn’t make it, all the mommies who are left with their heart breaking.” Seriously. This song obliterates me.
This is primal shit, so I’m underselling the amount of craft that went into this. “Sympathy,” like every song on this album, is an expert rock song — slow and twangy blues riff into cowbell thwacks into drunken-brontosaurus dual-guitar groove. And Sleater-Kinney, who started out strong and never, ever fell off, were at the height of their powers when they recorded this one. The riffs charge, the hooks stick, the tempo changes arrive at the perfect moments. If there’s a little bit of on-paper clumsiness to the lyrics, the band sells those lines completely. Everyone knows her role. Even if the album didn’t strike some deep, deep chords in me, I’d still know that it was great. But when I think of One Beat, all I can think of is that hollowed-out feeling I get when I finish listening to “Sympathy,” and how I always immediately put it right back on again.
A couple of years after One Beat came out, I flew to Portland to interview the band for the now-defunct magazine Devil In The Woods. They were about to release The Woods, and they were a little more than a year away from breaking up. I spent a couple of days with them, and they were all three perfectly lovely people, great company. They all drove station wagons, and they all laughed at each other’s jokes. The weekend before, they’d had a Super Bowl party at Tucker’s house. The first night I hung out with them, we went out for sushi, and I got drunk on sake because it was the only way I could stop my hands from shaking or my voice from trembling, and they graciously acted like they didn’t notice. The next day, nursing a hangover, I went out to lunch with Tucker and tried to tell her what “Sympathy” meant to me — how it made me think about my little sister, born a couple of months premature, and my mom, who almost died giving birth. I probably teared up a little just talking about the song. She was as warm and receptive as I could ever hope, but she didn’t seem especially eager to talk about the song. I don’t blame her. Most people who have been through that sort of trauma don’t like to talk to strangers about it. God knows I wouldn’t be. But she did something better than talk about it: She sang about it. And we should be grateful.