On Dig Me Out — their third album, the one that turns 20 tomorrow — Sleater-Kinney said a whole lot. On “One More Hour,” staring down the very last seconds of a relationship and trying to savor them: “Don’t say another word about the other girl.” On “Jenny,” surveying the wreckage of what’s been destroyed: “Didn’t we almost have it all?” On “Heart Factory,” screaming against the very notions of forced categories and predetermined responses: “Find me out, I’m not just made of parts / Oh, you can break right through this box you put me into.” Dig Me Out was an album made under extreme emotional circumstances, and tension explodes out of it at just about every turn. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein found ways to pare what they were saying to the fewest words possible, delivering these tiny little daggers. But the lyric that struck me first and hardest — the one that still sticks with me the most — is barely a lyric at all. Instead, it’s a string of glorious, euphoric gibberish “Dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum doo / All the little babies go unh unh I want to.”
For my money, “Little Babies” remains the best song that Sleater-Kinney have ever written. It has competition, of course; there are no bad Sleater-Kinney songs, and there are plenty of great ones. But “Little Babies” is the one, the burst of fiery joy and beyond-words excitement that turned Sleater-Kinney, almost instantly, into pretty much my favorite band in the world. The band attacked that song with the same rigorous fervor that they brought to everything, and Corin Tucker howled the feverish hook — “mother’s little helper!” — with enough force to crumble concrete. And there’s a point to the song, of course, since they always had a point. It’s powered by anxiety, something that’s true of so many Sleater-Kinney songs. They were singing about forced and stereotypical maternal caretaker roles, about wanting to break out of them. (In her memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein speculates that Tucker was actually singing about her, about resenting always having to take care of her when they were a couple.) And yet the song is just so fucking fun that it somehow goes beyond all that, beyond language itself.
Call The Doctor, Sleater-Kinney’s previous album, had hit like a bomb, and that album came out barely a year before Dig Me Out. And yet the band still figured out ways to level the fuck up on their third album. They lost Lori McFarlane, their perfectly capable drummer, and teamed up with Janet Weiss, probably my favorite drummer on the face of the Earth. That change did amazing things for them, anchoring their low end and giving them room to play around rather than just fire straight ahead. And Tucker and Brownstein seemed to think of themselves as something more — as rock stars, or something like it. The Dig Me Out cover famously quotes the Kinks’ The Kinks Kontroversy, demanding to be taken as seriously as any foundational classic rock. “Words And Guitar” nails the elemental power of what they were doing. “I make rock and roll,” Tucker howled on “It’s Enough” — as simple and defiant a statement of intent as you could ever want.
And as they were saying all this, Sleater-Kinney were still very much an underground band. Their last album had been a critical smash, but it didn’t exactly move massive numbers. They moved up from a tiny indie label to a less tiny indie label, and they probably started playing bigger rooms, but Dig Me Out was still an album made by the skin of its teeth. They got 10 days to record Dig Me Out — luxurious compared to the four days they had to make Call The Doctor, but not compared to anything else ever. They had to stay at Brownstein’s father’s place while making it because they didn’t have money for a hotel. The studio was bone-cold, and Brownstein has written about how they had to jump around and do aerobic routines between takes just to keep themselves warm.
So it’s a minor miracle that Dig Me Out even exists, that Sleater-Kinney had the vision to go for something so elemental and huge. And it’s a miracle for more than just material reasons. Tucker and Brownstein had been a couple, and they’d broken up not long before they recorded the album. That’s the sort of thing that would’ve broken up most bands — especially in that era, coming from a riot grrrl scene where bands rarely made it past one album. Instead, Sleater-Kinney used all that stress and hurt and anger to fuel the album. Brownstein has written about disconnecting emotionally while recording it, working on her “One More Hour” guitar parts and not even thinking about whether she was the person Tucker was singing about, the one who had the darkest eyes.
Dig Me Out is Sleater-Kinney’s greatest album, the one that will always jump into people’s minds when they think of the band. It’s not my favorite Sleater-Kinney album; that’s One Beat, now and forever. Maybe it’s not your favorite Sleater-Kinney album either. But it’s the one where everything absolutely clicked, where they rode some astral wave and burned their name into the history of American underground rock. It’s where they became legends. Dig Me Out isn’t a punk album, as Call The Doctor had been — not really, not exactly. Instead, it’s an album that lies outside subgenre designations, outside conversations. It’s where Brownstein and Tucker’s guitars became these tangled and intricate balls of melody, where they began to sound like a completely interconnected web. It’s where Brownstein’s icy, haughty vocals first held their own against Tucker’s otherworldly roar. It’s where Weiss came in and gave the band a whole new rhythmic dimension — hitting hard but treating her drums as an instrument rather than just a way to keep rhythm. It’s where they really became Sleater-Kinney.
Critics lost their minds for Dig Me Out, just as they’d done for Call The Doctor before it. And in a later age, that critical love probably would’ve been enough to push Sleater-Kinney closer to something resembling popularity. These days, the power of the internet is such that critical love can be enough to push a band into bigger venues, into higher spots on the festival posters that didn’t exist in 1997. (Back then, the closest thing we had to Coachella was alt-rock radio-station festivals, and Sleater-Kinney were emphatically not getting booked at those.)
But critical love didn’t have the same reach in 1997 as it has today. I didn’t see Sleater-Kinney live until the Hot Rock tour, a couple of years after Dig Me Out was out, and even then they were still playing DC’s pretty-small Black Cat. Sleater-Kinney were still something like a secret, at least among those who read SPIN cover-to-cover and took the reviews seriously. You could find Dig Me Out, at least, more easily than you could find Call The Doctor, but you still had to look hard. (I think I found my copy at a Best Buy, but it wasn’t the first Best Buy I’d checked.) Slowly, eventually, that changed. Sleater-Kinney got something resembling their due. Before they first broke up, I got to see them headline a festival. (That would be the free open-air Siren Festival at Coney Island in 2002, still probably the best festival I’ve ever been to.) But that took time and unglamorous work and about three more absolutely fucking stunning albums. It should’ve been easier. Sleater-Kinney should’ve been on top of the fucking world after Dig Me Out, and it’s the world’s fault that they weren’t. So listen to the album now, and give it the awe it deserves.