review: Sleater-Kinney’s ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ thrillingly defies expectations
"Do you feast on nostalgia?", Sleater-Kinney ask on "Ruins" off their exhilarating ninth album The Center Won't Hold, and they probably hope your answer is a resounding "no." The band's second reunion album is not the Sleater-Kinney of Dig Me Out or The Woods or even of their first reunion album, 2015's No Cities To Love. It sounds like nothing that they have ever done before; 25 years since their first single dropped, Sleater-Kinney still insist on pushing forward. The Center Won't Hold finds Sleater-Kinney experimenting with gothy synths, industrial dancefloor rhythms, feral punk-blues, and more. It's their most "pop" album but also their darkest. Its existence -- and the drama surrounding it -- has already upset some longtime fans, but it's not a sellout move or an abandoning of the band's values or anything like that. Just like Sleater-Kinney's classic albums did, The Center Won't Hold sticks a middle finger in the face of any expectations that people might have of this band. They've never been the type of band to look backwards, and this album is just one of their boldest examples of that.
Even last time around, Sleater-Kinney wouldn't reunite unless it was to support new music, and their reunion album No Cities To Love was one of 2015's best albums, purely because it succeeded as a work of new, relevant art, not because it cashed in on any kind of nostalgia. It won over old fans while welcoming new ones; vast knowledge of the band's back catalog could help contextualize it but it was not necessary to enjoy the music. The same could be said of The Center Won't Hold, which sounds and feels entirely modern in the context of 2019 music. It was produced by St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark), whose own latest album was one of 2017's best and was also a fusion of synths, guitars, and endless swagger like The Center Won't Hold. St. Vincent's fingerprints are felt (and welcome), but The Center Won't Hold is still clearly the work of Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss, one of the most distinct and powerful trios in the past three decades of rock.
That brings us to the elephant in the room, which is that Janet Weiss quit Sleater-Kinney last month, saying "the band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on." Janet's departure was all a lot of Sleater-Kinney fans needed to hear to write off this album. Fans jumped to the conclusion that Carrie was taking over (and ruining) the band, and/or that St. Vincent was changing their sound too much and for the worse, and that this album would be the proof that Janet abandoned a sinking ship. I don't know the ins and outs of Carrie, Corin, and Janet's personal lives, but the backlash seems to be a little misguided. A recent feature on the band by Laura Snapes for The Guardian says that it was Janet's idea to work with St. Vincent, and Carrie insists that Janet "raved about this album to us and to Annie." Even if it's true that Janet changed her mind about these songs, you can hear that she still pounded away at her drum kit as ferociously as ever when recording them. And how many times throughout music history has thrilling music come out of the clash of creative differences?
Ultimately, this stuff is all secondary to the eleven compelling songs that make up The Center Won't Hold. The context is informing the way we'll all hear these songs right now, but over time, that context will become a footnote and I think these songs will hold up as powerful songs on their own. There's so much to like about this album; it's the band's most varied, most consistently unpredictable album. It keeps you at the edge of your seat with every unexpected turn, even after you've listened to it over and over. The opening title track is evil blues in the vein of Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, and it'll shake your bones as much as those artists' most menacing songs. "Hurry On Home" sounds like Pretty Hate Machine-era Nine Inch Nails mixed with Sleater-Kinney's own classic material. "Reach Out" is like the early 2010s goth-pop of Zola Jesus and Austra but with a colossal chorus that could only be the work of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. "Can I Go On" has a chorus that's so downright fun, even this album's biggest cynics are going to have to give into it. "Bad Dance" sounds like Britney Spears' "Toxic" mixed with circus music, and that's an impressive feat for any band to pull off. There are parts of The Center Won't Hold that sound like they could've fit on S-K's older albums -- like the '90s-style indie rock of "Restless" or the driving punk ending of the title track -- but mostly that is not the case. Still, there is no question as to who is behind these songs. Carrie and Corin's familiar voices are as soaring and razor-sharp as ever, and even on this more synth-heavy album, they remind you that they're both two of modern rock's most fiery guitar heroes.
After ten songs of impassioned, forward-thinking rock music, The Center Won't Hold ends with "Broken," a bare-bones ballad inspired by Rihanna's "Stay" about Christine Blasey Ford's testimony against Brett Kavanaugh, and the #MeToo movement overall. There's no metaphor, nothing vague, just Corin belting lines about how Ford spoke for so many women and abuse victims when she spoke out against one of the most powerful men in American politics. It's the kind of song that can give you chills no matter how many times you hear it, and -- though it's a piano ballad and not a punk song -- it occupies the same intersection between powerful feminism and powerful songwriting that Sleater-Kinney's music has occupied for decades. It's a song that a lot of people probably need to hear right now, but it's also the only song on The Center Won't Hold that's directly inspired by the current political climate and the heightened interest in political music. "We’ve been addressing the #MeToo movement and shitty patriarchal systems of injustice and subjugation since 1995!," Carrie said in that aforementioned Guardian feature, and so this album remains confrontational, bold, and political by avoiding the stereotypes and expectations of a band once associated with the riot grrrl movement. Instead, Carrie and Corin wrote about whatever the hell they wanted to write about. These songs often look inwards and feel more explicitly personal than the songs you might expect Sleater-Kinney to write, especially in the Trump era. And that's really a political statement of its own. No one can tell Sleater-Kinney what to do or who to be, and when you listen to The Center Won't Hold that becomes self-evident. The same feminism and the same punk ethics that fueled their early material is fueling this album, even if it doesn't sound like Dig Me Out. And why should it anyway? Sleater-Kinney have made albums like that lots of times. They've more than earned the right to spread their wings with this one.
The Center Won't Hold comes out Friday (8/16) via Mom + Pop.
We'll update with a stream when it's out, but meanwhile you can listen/watch videos for five songs below. Also, catch Sleater-Kinney on tour this year.
Update, stream the album in full: