You always have to watch out for the quiet ones. Sleater-Kinney probably never wrote a quieter song than “The Size Of Our Love,” a hesitant and tender and devastated ballad that appears near the the end of their album The Hot Rock. “The Size Of Our Love” is about being in love with someone who is probably dying. It’s about sitting in a hospital room, waiting around for that person to die or not die, feeling like your whole identity is caught up in whatever’s about to happen. It’s about wanting to control that, and about surrendering that control. It is heavy: “The ring on my finger / So tight it turns blue / A constant reminder / I’ll die in this room if you die in this room.” I don’t know how many times I heard The Hot Rock before “The Size Of Our Love” fully burrowed into my chest. But once it got in there, it was there to stay. I wouldn’t call “The Size Of Our Love” my favorite Sleater-Kinney song, necessarily. But if you ever want to reduce me to ashes, that’s the one you play.
Really, all of The Hot Rock, which turns 20 tomorrow, is like that. It’s Sleater-Kinney’s fourth album, but it marks a lot of firsts for them. It’s the first time they got an album onto the Billboard charts — all the way up at #181. It’s the first album they made a music video for — the grainy and unglamorous, Miranda July-directed, black-and-white clip for “Get Up,” which I saw exactly once on 120 Minutes even though I watched 120 Minutes all the time. It’s the first album where Sleater-Kinney had the luxury of taking any real time to write and record. It’s the first album they made while they were in the public eye.
Or at least it must’ve seemed that way. Sleater-Kinney weren’t really famous. They were a massive critical success, but it still wasn’t all that easy to find their records in big chain stores. They still played small clubs. (The first time I saw them, they were touring behind The Hot Rock, and they played DC’s not-that-big Black Cat. I don’t think they even sold it out. They just about took the top of my head off.) They still recorded for Kill Rock Stars, which would be their home for most of the band’s existence. And yet the levels of attention they were getting must’ve been totally disorienting for a band that had come up in a firmly DIY scene, one that was (justifiably) even more suspicious of outside attention than most DIY scenes. Sleater-Kinney had their own internal tensions, too, and they’d sung a ton about those internal tensions. They’d also just made Dig Me Out, a straight-up masterpiece and a near-impossible album to follow. If they were going to keep going as a band after all that, they were going to have to figure some things out. The Hot Rock is the sound of them figuring out how to be a band in public.
The Hot Rock is the first Sleater-Kinney album that can’t really be called a punk album. (That genre tag is a stretch when you’re talking about Dig Me Out, too, but people were still using it.) It’s the album where Corin Tucker, probably consciously, took the focus off of her blood-and-fire phoenix-scream voice. Instead, Tucker and her bandmates went inward, going for texture and grace. They found both.
For The Hot Rock, the trio moved away from regular producer John Goodmanson and instead opted to work with Yo La Tengo collaborator Roger Moutenot. This was a canny choice, and I can see what they were thinking. The Yo La Tengo records that Moutenot produced were great, of course, and they proved, better than most others, how much beauty and dynamic range you could fit onto an underground rock record. But Yo La Tengo must’ve been an inspiration for other reasons, too. Yo La Tengo were a trio of underground lifers, one that had managed to carve out a sustainable career without ever caving to external pressure or the kind of emotional situations that must arise when there are romantic entanglements happening within your band. Maybe they were a blueprint for Sleater-Kinney. If they were, they were a great one.
On The Hot Rock, the members of Sleater-Kinney sound like they’re speaking to each other. That comes through in their voices. Tucker and Brownstein almost sound like they’re whispering, like they’re speaking in sketches and allusions that they don’t want the general public to be able to fully decipher. But hear it in the instrumental too, in the way the guitars needle and dart through each other, sounding like a skillfully woven quilt. And even though they only rarely go full bore on The Hot Rock, Janet Weiss’ drums are a tremendous piece of the puzzle; her casual command allows them to play around with tension-and-release dynamics in ways they couldn’t do before she joined the band.
A lot of the lyrics on The Hot Rock are about being in a band, about resisting hype and money and outside influence. Sleater-Kinney sing about that in terms that are literally mythic, drawing on The Odyssey: “Tie me to the mast of this ship and of this band / Tie me to the greater things, the people that I love.” And they sing about it obliquely, too: “Come so far, come close together / Don’t tear apart what we worked for.” But the whole album isn’t just that, and it’s not just the hospital room melodrama of “The Size Of Our Love,” either.
There are also a couple of tunes about the encroaching dominance of technology. Those songs firmly situate The Hot Rock firmly within that weird little pre-Y2K paranoia-bubble, but they’ve also aged starkly well. On “God Is A Number,” Corin Tucker laments about a generation that only knows how to “grow up on the internet, get up on TV.” I feel band for this 20-years-ago version of Tucker, the one that couldn’t have possibly foreseen how real that would become, how later generations might one day look at 1999 as a lost golden age before the internet took over everything.
When The Hot Rock came out, I remember it registering as just the tiniest disappointment. Dig Me Out and Call The Doctor had changed a lot of lives, and if we were hoping for something like that from the next album, we didn’t get it. The Hot Rock got great reviews, but it didn’t get the hosannas that the previous two albums had gotten, and it didn’t do as well on year-end lists. It’s hard to even guess how a Sleater-Kinney conquer-the-world album might’ve hit in 1999 — a year dominated by flashy pop-music excess, a year when the alt-rock dream proved to be fully dead. Rather than attempting to capture a zeitgeist that wasn’t there anymore, Sleater-Kinney turned inward. But it wasn’t a capitulation, and it wasn’t a surrender. It was a sustainability move.
It worked. Sleater-Kinney lasted for years after The Hot Rock. They made three more albums, all of them great. They toured to bigger and bigger audiences. They headlined a festival or two. When they called it quits in 2006, they did it on their own terms — a mass-catharsis goodbye tour, not a sudden splintering. And when they got back together eight years later, they did that on their own terms, too. Now they’re getting ready to get back together again — not because they need to, or because they’re chasing festival-reunion money, but because it makes sense for them. In the midst of figuring out how to pull this off, they made The Hot Rock. It’s not a universe-swallowing masterpiece, but it’s a quiet and dignified and elegant and beautiful album. It can still sneak up on you, and it can still rip you to shreds. Watch out for it.