Premature Evaluation: Sleater-Kinney No Cities To Love
Before we even get into how good the new Sleater-Kinney album No Cities To Love is — and it is very good — we should take a moment for what a miracle it is that the album exists in the first place. Sleater-Kinney’s self-titled debut turns 20 this year, and they are, without question, the best rock band to come along in the past two decades. (Who’s their competition? Seriously, who?) But when Sleater-Kinney announced their “indefinite hiatus” in 2006, it clearly was not one of these “we’ll be back on the festival stages in nine months” situations. They were done. They had other things going on. Corin Tucker had two kids, and if you know any women with small kids, you know that Sleater-Kinney’s relentless touring and recording schedule is not exactly compatible with doing mom stuff. She went on to record a couple of low-stakes solo albums and only barely toured on them. Carrie Brownstein wanted to try things like writing and acting — a sideline that started with a promising-enough NPR blog and somehow led to straight-up TV stardom. She’s more famous for Portlandia now than she ever was for Sleater-Kinney. Janet Weiss is the best drummer in the world, and she’s also an extremely fun hang, so she was never going to be hurting for work. The only Portland bands that didn’t try to recruit her were probably the ones who were scared to ask. When they went their separate ways, it wasn’t because they started hating each other. They were always friends. I went to Portland to interview them in 2005, when The Woods was about to come out, and learned that they still did shit like assembling at Tucker’s house to watch the Super Bowl or the Oscars. They probably still do that. But they’d done what they needed to do, said what they needed to say. They were ready to end that chapter and move on to other things. They did it. Those other things worked out. They didn’t need to come back. And yet here they are. Thank fuck.
No Cities To Love does not sound like a reunion album. It doesn’t even sound like a good reunion album. On a good reunion album — Dinosaur Jr.’s Beyond, say — a broken-up band gets back together and, against odds, recaptures the sound and dynamic that made them special in the first place. That wouldn’t work for Sleater-Kinney, who never had one sound that made them special. During their original run, they’d crank out another album every 18 months or so, and that album would represent a brave and strange leap from whatever had come before. By the time you’d wrapped your head around their new sound, they’d moved on to a newer new sound. In that seven-album run, there’s only one exception: the 1996 sophomore album Call The Doctor, which was a stronger and fiercer and more in-command take on the sound of that first album. Beyond that, their story is one of constant reinvention: Raging declaration-of-self basement-punk into emotional-whirlwind power-pop into twinkling soft-quilt warmth into strutting glam into furious feet-planted leftist humanist screeds into way-out unhinged psych-rock.
The Woods, their last album, was the biggest leap yet: The band abandoning any sense of a comfort zone and working with the noise-addict producer Dave Fridmann, who didn’t even like their other records and who pushed them into a place of whirling noise-solo insanity. No Cities To Love sounds like the album that might’ve come out 18 months after The Woods, which is to say that it sounds nothing like The Woods. As with every Sleater-Kinney album, the new one keeps a thing or two about the last one — in this case, the dazzling guitar-scrape ferocity and the sense that Corin Tucker is trying to turn her voice into a for-real natural force, like wind or something. But it ditches everything else, from every previous iteration. It starts fresh.
You’ll notice that I’ve been dancing around describing how, exactly, No Cities To Love does sound, mostly because that sound is extremely fucking difficult to describe. It’s not punk, exactly, and it’s sure as fuck not indie rock, in either its nebulous 2015 or 2005 definitions. The guitar tone is rigid, icy, sometimes mechanical. At times, it’s a bit like what St. Vincent (who’s recently been writing songs with Brownstein) used on her 2014 self-titled album. But with St. Vincent, there’s almost a scholarly reserve to that sound; she tries it on like a costume. Sleater-Kinney uses it with the same hellacious life-or-death urgency they’ve brought to everything they’ve ever done. There are moments — the solo on “No Anthems,” for instance — where the guitars sound like robot cats being strangled. Those moments are awesome. After The Woods lifted off into guitar-solo spaceout territory a few times, the band has put a new emphasis on rhythmic rigor. The songs never inch past the four-minute mark, and they all have some kind of structure, even if it’s not immediately apparent. A few of the songs have actual basslines, even if they weren’t played on an actual bass. “Fangless” has blippy, burbling synth, and the closest the band has come to that is, if I’m not mistaken, the B-52s-style Farfisa organ on “Dance Song 97.” And throughout, Janet Weiss drums with even more commanding propulsive force that she ever has before. On “Fangless,” her work is downright funky, which is something new.
And I’m not sure that Tucker has ever been as dominant a force as she is on No Cities. The lead-vocal split between Tucker and Brownstein was never equal, exactly, but the two played off each other with a sort of conversational ease on past records. This time around, Tucker feels like the whole show vocally; Brownstein’s spotlight moments are few and far between. I miss Brownstein’s hiccuping, playful delivery a bit, and there’s certainly a world of difference between No Cities and the album that Brownstein and Weiss made with Wild Flag in 2011. But as a singer, Tucker absolutely cannot be denied. She is a burning eagle, a world-swallower. Watching Sleater-Kinnney live over the years, I can’t even remember how many times I saw her step back from the mic, looking vaguely surprised that that sound had just escaped from her. And throughout No Cities, she just howls. That voice was still there on her solo records, but when she’s got that roaring Sleater-Kinney sound underneath her, she goes full-on stratospheric. She sounds like a badly injured opera soprano, or like an enraged mother hyena. On many of the choruses, Brownstein and Weiss join in behind her, and they’re an unstoppable gang when those voices all join up. But they’re a gang with a leader.
But if Tucker’s voice owns the album in some ways, her guitar and Brownstein’s are as tangled up with each other as they’ve ever been. In fact, they might be more so. Sleater-Kinney guitar lines are fascinating quilted things, gnarled knots of melody and rupture. You can never quite tell who’s playing what, except during the solos, where Brownstein tends to take over. It’s hard to believe that actual human beings figured out how to make these guitars work with each other quite like they do. The chemistry is otherworldly, and the melodic logic makes its own kind of sense. On No Cities, they’re playing with speed and urgency, but they’re still roiling and erupting, building up tension and then releasing it gloriously. There’s no equivalent to “The Swimmer” or “The Size Of Our Love,” no song where they take their collective foot off the gas and let beauty shine through. It’s all forward motion, which is just as beautiful in its own way.
Many of the lyrics are personal and inscrutable in ways that they haven’t aways been with this band: “You were born in a shout / But you will die in a silent skull.” Sometimes, though, those lyrics are crushingly literal and relatable, just as they were when the band was taking a righteous stand against post-9/11 paranoia on One Beat. Opener “Price Tag” is a feverish wage-slavery anthem. On “Hey Darling,” the lyrics, about being onstage and feeling completely remote, might lend some insight into why they went on hiatus in the first place: “Sometimes the heat of the crowd feels a little too close / Sometimes the shout of the room makes me feel so alone.” The album’s last song is “Fade,” and its last line is this: “If we are truly dancing our swan song, darling, shake it like never before.” Maybe they’re singing about themselves, as a band. Maybe what we’re hearing is the final word that they felt they needed to make. Maybe they’ll stop being a band again as soon as they finish up that one run of tour dates that they announced, to resounding collective rapture, a couple of months ago. Or maybe they’re singing about us as a species, about the idea that the end is near. Maybe it’s a personal thing, about time slipping away — that feeling that comes with age, that each moment that ends is one you’ll never get to experience again. Whatever the implication, though, they’ve given us plenty of cause to shake it like never before. We are so, so lucky to have them back. The more I listen to No Cities To Love — and I’ve been listening to it a lot — the more it sounds like magic.