Premature Evaluation: Sleater-Kinney The Center Won’t Hold
The first review of The Center Won’t Hold, Sleater-Kinney’s new album, was the most damning, and the most important. It was only 17 words long, and it came from inside the band: “The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on.” When Janet Weiss announced her departure from Sleater-Kinney last month, 23 years after she first joined the band, that was all the explanation she offered. Weiss didn’t even really say anything about the album she’d just helped to make. But the brief finality of that statement still hung over the album’s impending release like a dark shadow. How bad could the album be, if it made Janet Weiss leave?
In all the time that Weiss was in Sleater-Kinney, the band headed in nothing but new directions. This has always been central to Sleater-Kinney’s power. They’re a band without a base sound, an exploratory band. Sometimes, their new directions have been subtle stylistic tweaks: The focused, melodic toughness on Dig Me Out, the twinkling garage-rock shimmy on All Hands On The Bad One, the driven, topical righteousness of One Beat. Sometimes, those new directions have been jagged and abrupt. When Sleater-Kinney turned tangled and insular on The Hot Rock, I felt like I caught whiplash. When they suddenly veered towards explosive psychedelia on The Woods, I felt like I was about to be sick. (Literally. The CD showed up in my mailbox, and after I heard “The Fox,” I had to turn it off and take a walk around the block before I could hear the rest of the album.) Even when they came back with No Cities To Love, after an extended hiatus and nearly a decade between albums, they avoided nostalgic pitfalls, adding a brittle melodic iciness that was new for the band.
So how different could The Center Won’t Hold be, after all these years of upheaval already behind the band? Pretty different, it turns out! The first thing that we hear on The Center Won’t Hold is the sound of drums, but they’re not Janet Weiss’ drums. They’re heavy, distorted electronic clanks, like robot ghosts rattling their chains. It’s the sort of moment that might make a great drummer feel neglected, even if Weiss does come rattling in a minute later, doing a syncopated off-kilter math-rock Bonham thing. Indeed, there aren’t many big moments on The Center Won’t Hold for Weiss, a drummer whose steady pulse and hard thwacks always made her an equal partner within Sleater-Kinney. But it goes deeper than that. Other than the voices of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, two vocalists who cannot be imitated, The Center Won’t Hold has just about nothing that musically marks it as a Sleater-Kinney record. It sounds like a whole new band.
On their eight previous albums, Sleater-Kinney did things that no other band can do — things that they aren’t doing anymore. Tucker and Brownstein’s guitars would interlace with each other intricately — patterns darting in and out of each other, nudging and needling and combining into something richer and fuller than mere riffage. They aren’t doing that anymore. Their vocal interplay did some of the same things. They’d sing different parts at the same time, Tucker opening up earthshaking howls while Brownstein hiccuped icily or cheered her on. Those records sounded like conversations recorded in private languages. Tucker and Brownstein aren’t doing that anymore, either. This time, Brownstein sings her songs, and Tucker sings hers. The interplay is gone. It’s missed. The Center Won’t Hold marks the first time that Tucker and Brownstein have written songs without being physically present in the same room together. It shows.
Another thing shows, too: The influence of St. Vincent mastermind Annie Clark, who produced The Center Won’t Hold. In a lot of ways, Clark was an inspired choice. More than virtually anyone else, Clark has figured out how to make indie rock songs make cultural sense in the late-capitalist streaming graveyard. Clark has never stopped writing spidery, sidelong art-rock songs, but while doing it, she’s reinvented herself as a synth-addled cyborg, pulling theatrical glam moves and knocking out computer-eating-itself processed guitar solos. She lends some of that swagger to The Center Won’t Hold. Maybe the album needed it.
The Center Won’t Hold does not sound like an indie rock album. It’s got a bright, hard sheen to it, an end-times gloss. Even when Sleater-Kinney are rocking hard, something they do reasonably often on The Center Won’t Hold, they do it with a mechanized sort of precision. Some songs sound like hyper-charged end-credits music for Netflix romantic comedies that take place during the apocalypse. Some sound like a Hollywood studio giving the gender-switch reboot treatment to the first Battles album. Some of them sound like the Go-Go’s channeling Gary Numan.
But for all its divergence, The Center Won’t Hold doesn’t sound like a St. Vincent album, either. Brownstein and Tucker are both more direct, sincere songwriters than Annie Clark will ever be. And the music feels like a response to the lyrics. The Center Won’t Hold finds the songwriters scattered, panicked, wondering where we’re going. It’s a common scenario for aging cool kids: The world keeps changing, and you do what you can to keep up, but those changes leave you jangled, frazzled. At the same time, you see how much isn’t changing, and you despair for all the battles that you feel you’ll never stop fighting. All throughout The Center Won’t Hold, Brownstein and Tucker attempt to capture that state of mind in lyrics that allude to social media, to ever-present phones: “Everyone I know is tired / Everyone I know is wired,” “I end my day on a tiny screen / I try to reach for you through the empty sheets,” “It is a restless life, a restless life.” And it all ends with “Broken,” a somber piano ballad about the gutting spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings: “I thought I was all grown up right now / But I feel like I’ll never be done.”
There’s another plotline in The Center Won’t Hold, and that’s the way that Sleater-Kinney has basically become Carrie Brownstein’s band. It wasn’t always this way. In Sleater-Kinney’s early years, the real marvel was the incredible bottomless force of Corin Tucker’s voice. (I can remember one critic, I forget who, claiming that it was an act of real generosity on Tucker’s part to call the band Sleater-Kinney and not the Corin Tucker Experience.) When Sleater-Kinney were at their best, all three members were equal participants; there was no bandleader. But since the trio went on hiatus, Carrie Brownstein, thanks largely to her TV work, has become exponentially more famous then either Corin Tucker or Janet Weiss. And Brownstein is now doing frontperson things — preening, leering, strutting across tracks. It’s the Carrie Brownstein Experience now.
There are moments on The Center Won’t Hold — like when Brownstein purrs, “Let me defang and defile you on the floor” — where I can’t tell whether Brownstein is satirizing the dehumanizing ugliness of patriarchal sex-talk or whether she’s just appropriating it for herself. And even when she’s singing lead, Tucker sounds like she’s always holding back just a little, never intruding on Brownstein’s spotlight. Maybe that’s just me, an anxious fan, projecting his own stuff all over the band. But the balance feels off. It’s different. Everything is different.
And yet different can be good. I am now wrestling with The Center Won’t Hold, just as I imagine everyone who loves Sleater-Kinney will wrestle with the album. And yet there is a lot on this album that’s primal and powerful. “Hurry On Home” is a colossal driving groove, its stacked and multi-tracked harmonies adding to Brownstein’s body-disconnection freakout. “Restless,” the one track on the album that might’ve fit on a past Sleater-Kinney album, has the chilly grace of ’90s college rock. “Bad Dance” recalls the sticky, sweaty cocaine music of early-’00s warehouse parties. An then there is “LOVE,” the one true miracle on the album.
“LOVE,” like the One Beat classic “Step Aside,” is, more or less, a band singing a love song to itself. Over a catchy ticcing synth-rock sputter, Carrie Brownstein remembers the old, broke days: “The calling card is empty, sleeping in the van / But things are looking better, we’re only down a grand.” And when she hits the epiphany, it’s a goosebump moment: “You and me, strings and a melody / It took a little while, but now I see / It’s…” Her voice cuts off, and it gives way to Corin Tucker. Tucker only sings one word, but it’s the word that matters: “looooooove.” As in: It’s love.
This band has been through everything. These women have struggled and prevailed. They’ve broken up, and they’ve gotten back together. They’ve given their private language to the world. And they are finally willing to admit that they need each other, that they’re greater together than they could ever be apart. “LOVE” is the shortest song on the album, but it reverberates the longest. Those lyrics are even a bit awkward. They have to be. We’re dealing with vulnerability here, with people owning up to things that they’ve always known. It’s beautiful.
But love doesn’t always last forever. And before we got to hear “LOVE,” one of the three women who made it left the band. So we never get to hear “LOVE” the way it was intended. We can never hear it as a triumphant howl the way we did “Step Aside.” We can only hear it as a kind of elegy. What can you do? There’s courage in seeking out a new direction. But there’s also courage in saying that a new direction might not be the right direction. There’s a lot to like on The Center Won’t Hold. But the album title turned out to be prophetic. The center didn’t hold. And the new direction — for Weiss and, I think, for me — is not the right one. The Center Won’t Hold is a big risk, and an admirable one. But not every risk pays off.
The Center Won’t Hold is out 8/16 on Mom + Pop.